Five Habits New Writers Should Develop – About Writing: Part 3

Five Habits New Writers Should Develop:

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This is the third in my series About Writing. Check out Part 1 for a step-by-step guide to writing your first short story,  or Part 2 to learn more about planning.

In this part, I’m going to be talking about some really good habits new writers can develop. If you’re serious about writing for a living, it’s important to develop as a writer and develop a fitting work ethic. Read on to learn how!

1) Write every day.

Here it is, folks. Writing 101. Writing every day is one of the most important steps you can take on your path to becoming a writer. It doesn’t really matter what you write, and it doesn’t have to be much. But if you can carve a slot in your daily schedule to sit at your desk at the same time every day and write. Well, you’ll probably make it.

Daily writing has a few key benefits. Firstly, if you’re working on a long piece like a blockbuster novel, you’re going to finish your first draft a lot sooner. Secondly, If you’re between projects or suffering from writers’ block, writing every day will train up your brain so that you get better at writing on command. Our brains are adaptive, they learn, they develop new patterns and ways of thinking, but conditioning your brain this way relies upon routine. If you’re the kind of person who does NaNoWriMo every year that’s great, but if you don’t sit at the keyboard for the other eleven months it’s going to be slow progress.

If you’re new to it, start small. A couple of hundred words a day is enough to get started, work your way up to a thousand if you can. 365 Thousand words written in a year is enough for anyone to make a career out of (with a little practice.) Doesn’t matter if you write fiction, non-fiction, or just want to writing an amazing blog. The practice will help you all round.

Writing every day doesn’t just produce a lot of work, it makes you think and feel like a writer. It makes you better at spotting good writing opportunities, and getting your thoughts from brain to page more clearly. You don’t have to share, or even keep, everything you write, but the experience gained is invaluable.

2) Finish your first drafts.

A lot of new writers have trouble bringing pieces to completion. I had this problem for years and it stopped me from ever trying to write anything really meaty. Too often I would look back on the things I had written and feel like they didn’t come up to scratch. In longer stories, I’d get tied in knots and lose motivation. I didn’t realise at the time how much difference a good plan and rewrite would make for a story.

This can really knock your motivation. You want to move forward, but you’re sitting on piles of unfinished stories. Worse still, you’ve never gone through the process start to finish, you don’t really have much experience with anything but starting first drafts. You need finished stories to work with, and you need the practice bringing those stories to completion.

When you’re writing your first draft, give yourself a loose idea of where your story is going and just write it. Don’t worry about the quality, and don’t worry about fixing mistakes. Think of it like building a house, trying to rewrite during your first draft is like picking out carpets before building the roof. Even if you’re hitting stumbling blocks, push through and finish the draft. You’d be surprised how much you can sort out later.

3) Enjoy reading.

I know this one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many writers don’t really read. None of us reads as much as we’d like, I’m sure. It’s hard to find the time, or a book that really grabs us. There are stories to finish, jobs to do, and when it comes to spare time, the TV is much more passive and inviting. However, reading is a skill like any other. The more you do it, the more you get out of it.

Reading regularly is one of the best ways to develop a natural, confident writing style, and it happens without too much conscious effort from the writer. Reading great books gives you a feel for a well constructed sentence, and brain that is more comfortable with the written word. Books aren’t paced like films, or TV. Absorbing yourself in them with give you a better sense of how a written narrative unfolds. You’ll get a good eye for the type of writing you like, and the chances are someone else will too.

4) Keep rewriting

Rewriting is the real craft of writing.

Writing a first draft is the fun, it’s like doodling or strumming out a song on the guitar. It’s loose, it’s freeing, and it’s all about exploring every opportunity you can. Rewriting is harder. It’s slower work, and it’s all about being tough on yourself. Every does it differently, but the goal is the same. Take your first draft and smooth it out, preserve your strengths, your style, but make the hand of the author invisible. Iron out the creases so that when someone reads your book, it feels right.

It can be tough to sit at your computer and be so harsh on yourself. Worse still, it usually takes multiple passes. Building a strong approach to rewriting is a great skill. Try to separate yourself from your role as the author, look at your text as though it were written by a stranger. Read it and every time you hit a hurdle, smooth it out. Rewrite. Cut and compress. Turn it into a pleasurable activity, read for fun, say the words, find out sentences and make fun of yourself. Be daring, cut entire paragraphs into oblivion if it’ll help your book. Just keep doing it.

If you can be tough on yourself, if you can learn to go back to your book over and over again, writing and rewriting until there’s nothing you can fix, your books will benefit, and so will you.

5) Let your work settle.

If you’ve mastered the previous four habits, then this next one might be a bit of a struggle for you.

This is a recent problem for me. You see, I am an inefficient workaholic. I don’t get as much done as I would if I used my time better, but I really have trouble letting go of jobs. If I post a book freebie, or add something to the blog, I can stop peeping at stats. If I write a story and I’ve really got myself into a rewriting state of mind, I tweak and I tweak. And even when I convince myself to leave it, I think about it and dwell on my mistakes.

There comes a time when you need to let a piece settle. Sometimes it’s easy to know when. If you’ve just finished the first draft of a novel, go away. Leave the book, start something new. Just leave it. If you’re rewriting? That can be trickier, you might need to repeat and repeat the rewriting process until all the kinks are out, but you can get too close too. Sometimes a piece of writing just doesn’t work until you can separate yourself from it. That means stepping back and letting yourself forget about it for a bit.

If you’re having trouble with a piece that just won’t sort itself out, step back. Forget your wrote it, write something else or get away from writing completely for a few days. Give it as long as it needs, it’ll still be there when you get back, and the chances are it won’t be so bad.


 

That’s all for now. If this was useful to you, check out some more articles about writing. Pop your email address in the box on the right hand side of the page to be notified when new posts arrive here. If you’d like to read some of my work, check out my author page on Amazon.

Christmas Past is Free Until Saturday!

christmaspastHey guys, if you haven’t read Christmas Past yet, it’s free today until Saturday. It’s a time-travel thriller set in the middle of a Victorian winter. It was the first story I published myself, and it started my Timewasters series. The story is pretty special to me, so I’d love it if you checked out out, and let me know what you thought.

You can read it on your kindle, or the free kindle app on your tablet or smartphone. Download it from Amazon.

More details below!

Time travel is easy, getting home is the hard part.

Annie and her friends are used to harsh conditions, but a Victorian winter still comes as a shock. They have a job to do, but it isn’t long before they stumble upon a corpse buried in the snow, and a new mystery to solve.

How to Plan a Short Story – About Writing: Part 2

Hey guys, this is the second article in my series about the writing process. If you’re interested in a broader look at the basics, check out Part 1, How to Write Your First Story. This time we’re going to look at planning in a little more detail. This article will show you how to turn a good idea into a great plot, so get out your notepads and follow along. 


 

coyote5Writing without a plan can be difficult, deceptively so, because part of writing well is making the twists and turns of a story look natural and flowing. In a well crafted story the hand of the author should be invisible, leaving the reader to getting fully absorbed in the tale. A well writing book leaves the reader thinking the writing process  was as effortless as reading it was, with one event occurring neatly after another until we come to satisfying end. Some writers do work this way and produce very good books, but for most the results turn out less impressive. Writing without a plan leaves the writer vulnerable to writing themselves into a corner, or losing all sense of pacing completely.

A good plan is like sketching out a canvas before beginning to paint, or framing and lighting a photograph before snapping away. Some free spirits will tell you that writing a plan is constrictive, but done well the process can be liberating. Letting you unleash all your creativity onto your first draft without worrying about how the plot will develop next. There’s nothing to lose, if you find the plan isn’t working for your story any more? Well, you’re not obliged to stick to it.

When people ask me about getting into writing, I always advise them to experiment with short fiction. I like to try out new things in stories around a thousand words because I like the format and you can get results pretty fast. If you read Part 1, then you’ll know I covered my process for a story that length from start to finish, but in this article I’m going to really try to explore planning in more detail. This is less of a step by step guide, but if the advice is useful to you, then you can go back to Part 1 and incorporate all of this into that guide.

A short story shouldn’t take as much planning as a novel (for obvious reasons) but you can still get yourself tied in knots if you aren’t careful. Part of the problem with writing off the cuff is that so often it’s hard to tell the difference between a good plot and a good premise. Having a great idea can send you scurrying to the keyboard, but there’s some development between “what’s the story about?” and “how does the plot unfold?” For example, “dinosaur clone theme park” is a great premise, but it tells you nothing about the plot. It takes a little time, and a little planning to turn that into “a billionaire clones dinosaurs to use as theme park attractions, he invites a small group to tour the park and endorse it, but during a storm the park is isolated and the dinosaurs start to escape.” And that doesn’t even include an ending!

A good way to think of planning is taking a simple premise and extrapolating a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t even need to be much. A functional short story plan can be achieved just by writing a quick couple of sentences that cover the key points of the plot.

When I wrote my story Lift, I started with a simple premise. An old lift (or Elevator for my American readers) is operating on its own in the night. When I sat down to plan, I set my target word count and broke that down into three blocks. I then tried to flesh out a story with that in my head. I knew I wanted a protagonist, someone to hear the lift operate, otherwise it wouldn’t be as spooky as I imagined. I knew I didn’t want to be to overt about the cause, so I came up with an ending I liked, and I went from there:

Block 1, Alfie hears the lift and thinks about hearing it night after night.

Block 2, Alfie gets up the courage to go investigate.

Block 3, resolution. (I’m not going to spoil the whole thing, you can read it here.)

The story only ended up a little over a thousand words, and the plot is hardly elaborate, but by planning out a loose sequence before I started I was free to write the story how I wanted. I really liked the way it turned out.

Most stories in the western literary tradition follow this three act structure. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s the model most TV shows, films, and popular books follow. If you’re reading this, it’s a form that you’re probably unconsciously well versed in, and that means that it’s a great place to start when it comes to planning stories. Formally it’s defined as Setup, Conflict, and Resolution. Though, you’ve probably also heard the “put a man up a tree analogy,” which says you should put a man up a tree, throw stones and him, then get him back down again. Place your characters in a situation, give them problems to overcome, bring them to a resolution. Again, remember that this is just a model. A guide to aid your own storytelling skills. It’s not a blueprint for every piece of writing you do, if you become to rigid about it your stories will feel stilted and contrived.

Personally, I find a character focused interpretation works well. What is your central figure trying to achieve? What stumbling blocks will they face in achieving this goal? How will they overcome this? That makes it sound a little lofty and dry, but it works pretty well for all kinds of stories and characters. Take a typical adventure story like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones wants to find the Lost Ark and rescue his old mentor. This is difficult because Nazis are also looking for the ark and they have kidnapped his mentor. He overcomes this by recruiting his mentor’s daughter, tracking the Nazi’s down, and learning the history of the Ark so when it opens the Nazis are killed and he isn’t. Of course, the film is a more layered and complex narrative, but the broad strokes still fit into this form.Most of the classic action adventure films do. Adopting the form for short works will make it easier for you to keep your plots focused.  When you move on to longer, more intricate stories it’ll still apply.

Plan it more detail if it’s helpful to you. For longer stories, I’ll usually devote a paragraph for each third of the story, and try to flesh out specific events in more detail. The more characters and scenarios you include, the more forethought it’s going to take. There are pitfalls, however. It’s important to leave yourself room to breath. A lot can change in the course of writing a first draft, and it’s important to have key plot points established before you begin, but you need room to work. If you find, over the course of a story, that it makes sense to drop a character, or for people to leave, arrive, change sides or even for the setting to change completely,  this shouldn’t send you completely back to the drawing board. Characters are important because they draw people into your story, but planning is about making your plot work on a functional level.

You probably have a few ideas for short stories already. Try taking one and breaking it down into three sentences representing the beginning, middle, and end. You briefly planned the story from start to finish! Now flesh out the plan a little, rewrite it in a little more detail, a couple of sentences for each act. For a short story, this is probably enough of a plan. For a novel, you can follow the same process, expanding a little more each time. 

The most important advice is always not to worry. At this stage you’re just framework for the story, the adornments come later. A story isn’t finished until you send it out into the world. It’s never too late to fix things, when you’re writing up, you might find your plan wasn’t quite so well structured as you thought it was. Don’t worry about it. You can hammer a lot of things into shape with a good rewrite. Just remember, the better the foundations at the start, the less you’ll have to fix up later.

Now go out and plan some stories, try using the process from Part 1 to write them up into complete pieces, then let me know how you did!


 

If this article was useful to you, then you might enjoy my book Two Cephalopods Walk Into a Bar. It’s a collection of sixteen short stories, written using the same methods I’ve discussed. It’s available on Amazon to read on the kindle, or the kindle app on your smartphone or tablet.

The Visitor – A Short Story

Hey guys, this was supposed to be posted last week, but it just wasn’t ready yet so I pulled it for another pass. It’s good to go now and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think. In other news, the switch to the new domain is completely final now. I’ve got everything working as I like it, so I can get back to posting and enjoying blogging for a bit. I’m still getting little bits of feedback from the Two Cephalopods Walk in a Bar freebie which finished the other week. If you grabbed the book and enjoyed it, you’d be doing me a massive favour by reviewing it on Amazon. If not, don’t worry, it’s never too long before another freebie. That’s all for now. If you like this story, check out The Octopus of Suspense, or Octopus Returns, which contain a lot of my other stories. Or, click the “Fiction” tab at the stop for some stories you can read free right here. 

The Visitor

1953

Grayling sanded the rail. There was a knot in the wood, it took longer to sand down. A dark spot in the finish and he couldn’t paint it until the whole thing was smoothed out. When it was done, he could finally sit back and say the job was complete. He looked out across the water, grey clouds hung off the coast, but the last of the summer sun was bearing down on him. Looked like he would be done just in time.

Two years ago, he’d have laughed if someone said he could build his own house. Now it was ready, well, maybe he’d get a good night’s sleep without worrying about the next day’s work. It was getting quieter now. Tourists usually filled the beach the last few weeks, but he hadn’t seen a soul all day. It was a small price to pay for peace and quiet the rest of the year. Besides, the house was firmly on his land. If he had enough, he could keep people on the right side of the fence. Most of them weren’t that bad anyway.

He worked the wood down some more, trying not to think about anything else. He whistled some tune he half remembered, he couldn’t remember the name. He couldn’t remember anything except that his mother liked it, and he knew that if he didn’t whistle all the way through at least once, he would be still hearing it when he went to sleep. He looked back into the sky, the clouds were getting nearer. He lifted off the sandpaper and blew away the dust. The dark patch where the knot had been was still visible, but when it was painted over, nobody would know any better. He would know, and it would niggle away at him. Little details always did. But if the clouds opened and it started to rain on the exposed wood, well a little dark patch would be the least of his worries.

He brushed down the rail, dropped the ragged sandpaper into his toolbox and went inside to finished the paint. When he returned, he saw the man on the beach. Not a tourist, he wore a suit. Even at this distance, Grayling could see that it was immaculately pressed. He walked right towards his house, and Grayling knew it was over.

He did his best to ignore the stranger, to hold on to the moment. He opened the can of paint, a blue he’d picked out just for the porch, and started to paint. He focused on the knot, trying to cover it completely. He went back to whistling, but he still couldn’t place the tune.

“Now, what is that song.” He said to himself.

“Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish.” The man was behind him now.

“Right,” said Grayling. He turned and dropped the paintbrush back in the can. “Harry Warren.”

“I believe so,” said the stranger.

“Here to visit the beach?” Grayling asked. The man shook his head and extended a hand. “I’m here to speak to you, Mr. Grayling.” He took back his hand and smiled. “Shall we go inside? I’d rather not catch a tan, if it’s all the same to you.”

Grayling walked the stranger into his house and invited him to sit. “Drink?”

“Please,” said the man. “Whatever you have will be fine.” Grayling laughed. Gin it was, how far would get if he poisoned the glass? Not that he could, who kept a stash of cyanide at their beachfront cabin. He gave the man his drink and then sat opposite, more than a little proud of himself. He’d played out this day in his head so many times, but never did he think he’d keep his cool so well.

“So, what can I do for you?”

The man took a drink and then placed the glass gently on Grayling’s coffee table.

“I’d like to tell you a story, Mr. Grayling.” He leaned forward. Grayling hated him, the bastard almost managed to look earnest. “It starts ten years ago, very far from here. The government gives a man a job, and it isn’t a very nice one.” He looks empathetic, even magnanimous. “The man, still young then, takes his expenses and his passport and leaves to do it. Word comes back to the government that the job has been done successfully, but the man in charge has been killed. He is given a hero’s burial, though no body is discovered.”

“Yes,” said Grayling. “That sort of thing was common a few years ago. Sad times.”

“Certainly. Now imagine it is discovered that the job was not completed. Not entirely.”

“I think I can do that,” he muttered.

“Well, then the government might start to suspect that some of their other assumptions were also incorrect. Might they.”

“Look, what’s all this about… what did you say your name was?”

The stranger stood and knocked back the last of the gin. “I didn’t. It wasn’t about anything exception professional courtesy, Mr. Grayling. Suffice to say, I am also a man who has been sent to do a job. I just wanted to really know what the job was first. I think we both deserve that.”

“I think it’s time you left.” Grayling stood and showed the stranger the door. “I’ve had quite enough.” The stranger nodded and left by the front door. When Grayling got up the nerve to follow him, the man was long gone.

When the rain began to fall, Grayling took his things inside. He stayed away from the windows, and without making too much commotion, he retrieved his old leather bound suitcase from under his bed and started to pack his things. As he worked, he felt the home he had built from the last year begin to close in around him, as if it were straight jacket. The walls felt smaller, and the doorways a little tighter, and the spot that had seemed so remote now felt exposed and in the full view of the world. How he had believed himself to be hidden, he could not understand.

He could pack light. Perhaps he had always known this day would come, because when he looked around he could see little that he could not do without. Now it was as if he had been living light, waiting for the day to come. He packed a change of clothes, he gathered all him money, his passport and the small collection of documents that would make travelling a little easier. When he belted up the suitcase again, it didn’t feel much heavier.

And then he sat. He didn’t leave the house. He watched the light fade outside his bedroom window and listened to the sounds of the beach surrounding him. He thought about the suitcase and he didn’t know why he’d spent the time with it. He was never trying to hide, he couldn’t stop them finding him. He just wanted to lay low enough to stop them having a reason to look. Now they knew he was alive, they would find him. His cheek felt cold, he raised a hand and felt that it was covered in tears. He did not have it in him to start running again, and how far would he get if he did.

Grayling sat on the floor until dawn came again. Then he opened up the can of paint and returned to painting his porch. He whistled Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish until he could really feel the sun on the back of his neck, and when it got dark again, he went back inside and slept through the night.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass – Review

Don’t I spoil you, dear Zelda fans? Don’t worry, I have only one more Zelda review lurking in my archives after this one, and I might not post it. It’s a piece I wrote about the GBA port of A Link to the Past and is concerned much more with the port than the game itself. I know I’ve been swamping you with Zelda reviews over the last few days, but I’m really trying to get my old dooyoo reviews here where they belong. This is a review for one of my all time favourite Zelda, Phantom Hourglass on the DS. A divisive title, to be sure, and overshadowed by recent successes like Nintendo’s 3DS ports, and A Link Between Worlds. Still, I liked it then, and I like it now. Read on, dear Zelda fan, and let me know what you think. 

Zelda Phantom HourglassThe Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is the first game in the Zelda series to see a release on the Nintendo DS. As such it has a lot to prove, not only in proving that the DS is capable of adapting to the series’ varied gameplay but also demonstrating that the massive and lengthy stories that the series is famous for can be squeezed into one of those tiny little cartridges. It rises to both these challenges superbly.

Firstly, Phantom Hourglass is a little unusual in the series in that it follows on directly from a previous game. Most entries in the series take regular components, the hero Link, the Princess Zelda and the villain Ganon and then place them in a totally self-contained story. This time around we pick up not long after the conclusion of the last home console entry in the series, The Wind Waker. Fortunately the game does not depend on too much back story but for players of The Wind Waker it’s nice to find yourself in a familiar world.

The game begins upon a pirate ship populated by some of the most cheerful pirates I’ve ever seen. You play Link, a young boy this time around, a member of the ship’s crew under Princess Zelda who has taken to playing captain. While the whole set up will probably make more sense to players of the previous game it doesn’t matter too much as thirty seconds in the jolly pirate ship runs afoul of the ghost ship. A fog clouds the entire vessel and Zelda is abducted. Link being the hero that he is, dives overboard in pursuit only to get caught in the current and wash up on a strange beach. And so it is that all is washed away and we embark upon a new adventure.

Link soon becomes acquainted with a fairy, a wise old man, a sea captain and a fortune teller. Between them all they piece together enough clues about the ghost ship and set sail. Players of The Wind Waker will remember sailing from island to island in their personal yacht. This time around Link has access to a small paddle steamer and so things move a fair bit faster.

The first thing you’ll probably notice about this game is that it has some of the most beautiful graphics ever seen on a DS game. When The Wind Waker was released on the gamecube, a surprising uproar erupted from Zelda fandom about the graphics. The Wind Waker demonstrated a very well designed example of cell shading at a time when games didn’t dare to be different. The visuals were very stylised, bright and colourful with a hint of ancient chinese art about them. Character designs were very exaggerated, water was a mix of pure blue and pure white, great explosions blew out in a flurry on inky spirals.

It remains one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. Apparently some of these “fans” however, had been operating under the delusion that Zelda was and ever should be an ultra realistic, gritty fantasy series with polygon perfect characters. While that doesn’t match any Zelda game I’ve ever seen, this corner of fandom was particularly vocal and objected strongly to the direction The Wind Waker had taken. Shigeru Miyamoto, the game’s designer was a little hurt, I believe and when the next major Zelda title arrived we were presented with a dark and gothic tale set in an ultra realistic, fantasy world. It was a great game but really only a fraction as innovative and as fun as The Wind Waker.

All is not lost however and The Wind Waker’s visual style has been kept for Zelda’s handheld titles, where gamers don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. Phantom Hourglass benefits so much from the heritage of The Wind Waker, it’s hard to imagine the game being possible without it. The diminutive child version of link makes a perfect little hero to guide around the world and while the power of the DS pales in comparison to the Gamecube, a more stylised more is far better suited to its hardware. Textures here are the biggest weakness with most being blocky and rough, however the whole game is assembled beautiful and I was overjoyed to see that explosions still blow out into inky spirals. I think Phantom Hourglass is probably the best looking DS title that I own, while it doesn’t push the hardware as much as some it always presents a consistent image that suits the game. In the end it is games such as these that we remember.

The game also makes use of the entire DS capabilities, often in very clever ways. Controlling Link is done via the touch screen however, unlike Super Mario 64 which expected you to use the touch screen like an analogue stick, here you merely touch the stylus to the screen and Link will run to that point. The stylus must be held down allowing Link to follow but unlike other titles you aren’t require to push forward; it’s much handier. Links typical range of sword attacks are all here and made highly intuitive. Simple quick attacks are done by tapping the screen while more complicated attacks are done through a series of swipes. The spin attack is probably easiest and just asks you to draw a quick circle around Link. It’s quick and easy to do, most players will probably get to grips with it in minutes. Phantom Hourglass also makes use of the microphone, though only for a few specific events. As they’re part of some very entertaining puzzles, I won’t spoil them here, I’ll just say it’s nice to see developers using this feature.

While the gameplay is strong, I was a little disappointed int the storytelling which seems to have taken a step backwards this time around. Ostensibly the game places its emphasis on exploration but this is far too easy to be truly diverting. The game doesn’t feature a wide range of other characters and those that are around often aren’t that interesting. he game also doesn’t last as long as I’ve come to expect from a Zelda title. The story can be worked through in a good few days and the ocean has somehow shrunk since The Wind Waker. However, it is playing the role of an epilogue more than a completely new adventure so perhaps that’s intentional.

There’s a lot of really solid gameplay to be found here and peeks of a really solid game hiding beneath the surface. The dungeon segments have the added twist of a time element that makes them somewhat more interesting than usual and I often felt like this could have been a classic with perhaps a better story. There’s a lot to love including a fantastic visual style and a control scheme that’s a dream on the DS but I was left wishing the visuals were all they’d taken from The Wind Waker. The game feels more tied down by the ocean setting than liberated and as much of the vast world has been cut out it seems somewhat pointless. I keep finding myself drifting off to a world where I was playing with exactly the same engine but a whole new story. Perhaps next time, eh?

If you’re considering buying Phantom Hourglass, don’t let this review put you off. It’s a first rate game that not only looks stunning but is fun and compelling. However, if you’re coming over from other entries in the series then I would advise you to think of it more as a short trip than a whole new world to fall into.

This is available at most game stores and online for around £20, it will run in any Nintendo DS console.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – Review

I was surprised to discover another Zelda review lurking in my dooyoo archives, but here it is. I hope you enjoy it!

Our hero has changed a bit over the years.
Our hero has changed a bit over the years.

Link’s Awakening for the original Gameboy was the first Zelda title released for a handheld device, and only the fourth in the series when it launched. Developed at a time when the franchise was still working through unfamiliar territory, it doesn’t have any of the usual cliches inherited from Ocarina of Time on the N64 and remains a remarkably solid adventure.

The story is a direct sequel to the Super Nintendo game, A Link to the Past. Our hero Link is shipwrecked on a the small Koholint island and discovers that all is not well. Monsters are roaming the island and Link is stranded, to escape he must wake the mythical Wind Fish that is supposed to watch over the island. In typical Zelda fashion this means working through a series of puzzle laden dungeons and retrieving some powerful artefacts. In this case, eight magical instruments. Hey, I didn’t say it was completely free of cliches.

The plot develops in a surprisingly intricate fashion and though the story has developed a reputation for having an “it was all a dream” twist ending, that is a little inaccurate. As Link explores the island, he discovers more about its nature. Things become a little surreal as questions are raised as to the island’s reality and more importantly, the role the Wind Fish plays in all this. As Link completes more dungeons he becomes embroiled in sentient nightmares trying to stop him from waking the Wind Fish. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated narrative that one would not expect to find on a Gameboy title and is probably the best RPG to ever see release on the system.

Link's Awakening GameplayGameplay is very simple, taking its cues from the original Legend of Zelda on the NES and A Link to the Past. The player controls Link from an overhead perspective and is equipped with a sword and shield. Most monsters are relatively simple to defeat but large in number with some challenging boss battles scattered throughout. The game is challenging when it comes to puzzles but keeps combat manageable, the focus here is the adventure as a whole and the game rarely disappoints.

Graphically, Link’s Awakening is a gem. The Gameboy’s power was in the same region as the original NES but this title is so much more stylish than the original Zelda that you would think the hardware was a world apart. Developed in a very similar style to A Link to the Past it really fits as a sequel and looks absolutely beautiful.

Links Awakening was released twice back in the day. The original Gameboy version was followed by a Gameboy Colour release that added a few new dungeons and some nice use of colour. Both are largely the same though both are also quite difficult to find. If you want to play this, and I would recommend it to anyone, then your much better off playing the virtual console re-release on the 3ds.

Link's Awakening Egg

How to write your first story – About Writing: Part 1

This is the start of a series of articles I’ve been meaning to write for some time. I’ve often avoided talking about the writing process because, having read so many great books by great authors on the subject, it’s always felt a little presumptuous to butt in and say “I have opinions on writing too.” Still, enough people have asked me about why I write, how I write, and what it’s like publishing through KDP, that I’ve decided to just push ahead and do it. And what better place to start than at the beginning. 

How to Write Your First Story.

The biggest hurdle for a new writer is taking a piece from the blank page to completion for the first time. We’ve all written stories or started the first chapter of long and winding epics, but being able to take an idea from its conception to a finished piece is what separates a hopeful writer from the real thing. The length of the piece is largely irrelevant. What matters is being able to step back from a piece and say that it is complete in itself. Unfortunately too many new writers get completely lost in the process, leaving cluttered desktops of half-finished ideas, never really know where they went wrong. Not so long ago, that was me. If it sounds familiar to you, read on.

There’s a reason new writers get tangled up in their stories and abandon them. From a young age, we are encouraged to write. Children are natural storytellers, they can fill pages and pages with their imaginative scrawl. Unfortunately, we aren’t taught how to write well until fairly late in our lives. When most start writing seriously, they begin as they had as a child. They write the first words on the page and go from there, expecting a story to spring forth. Then after a couple of sentences, they go back and read, only to find it doesn’t sound as clean, or as clear, as the last published author they read. It can be disheartening, and a lot of people stop there and never start again.

Somewhere along the line, we acquire the notion that writing should come naturally. That those who write well, do so as freely as others write a shopping list. But writing as an art form isn’t like that. It’s just like picking up a paintbrush for the first time, or learning your first notes on an instrument, we can all do these things but that doesn’t mean we can paint or play the saxophone. We have to learn a little craft.

The Stages

Writing is really made up of three stages. Everyone’s approach  is a little different, but if you asked around, I think you’d find broad agreement with this. Each stage requires a different set of skills, and trying to work on them all at once is a surefire way to get mixed up. Try to think of each stage as a different hat, a separate role you step into.

Stage 1 – Planning.

The first step is all about figuring out what you’re going to write. There’s lots of debate as to how much you should plan. Some writers go completely off to cuff, but they’re a rarity. Other plan almost paragraph to paragraph in excruciating detail before they start, but they’re the exception too. Personally, I find I need a loose plan that details what my story is about, how it’s going to evolve as it goes, and the final resolution. If I don’t have one, I write myself into a corner. If I plan too tightly, the writing becomes restrictive and I can’t get into the flow of this better.

For short stories, I usually break the idea down into three acts, and write a paragraph or two in each laying out the narrative. A plan doesn’t need to be clean, or tight, or even well written. It just needs to guide the flow of the story a little so you’re not trying to plot the next twist and turn of your story while you’re trying to write a good scene.

For your first story, try writing out a plan for a 1000 word story. A good start is to divide your plan into three, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Each would be about 333 words long.) For now, ignore the old storytelling tropes like “put a man up a tree”, just get an idea you like and loosely plot it with three acts.  Keep it simple, something too complicated won’t fit well into the word count.

Stage 2 – The First Draft

The first draft is probably the most important part of the process. It is closest to what most people think of when they think of writing, and with good reason. It’s the stage where you’re probably going to be doing the most work. For me, it’s my favourite part of the entire process. I know other writers who find it to be a slow and agonising step, with each word like hard labour. For a first draft, you will take your plan and turn it into a story. This means sitting at your computer, typewriter, pen and paper, or whatever you’re using, and actually writing for significant lengths of time.

This is where a lot of people fall down. Writing can be hard work, and it’s tough to keep your inner editor at bay. Artists of all kinds will tell you, looking back on your own work is extra hard because you can always see all the little flaws. It’s easy to look back your first drafts and hate your work, but you have to ignore that voice. Probably the biggest secret in writing is that all first drafts are terrible. You will hear stories of writers like Harlan Ellison who knocked off masterpieces on the fly, but those guys were magazine writers who hammered out science fiction stories for a penny a word, day after day, week after week. They did it or they went hungry. You learn to be very good, very fast under conditions like that. For the rest of us? First drafts suck, they all suck, and it doesn’t matter, because you never have to show it to anyone.

Writing a good first draft is just about turning the plan into a more elaborate, expressive piece. As a writer, your job is to be completely unrestrained. Take off your editor’s hat completely, and tell yourself that you can write whatever you want, however you want. A lot of what you write will be terrible. A lot of it will be corny, tired rubbish. It’ll be sappy, groan worthy, hackneyed trash, and it’s supposed to be. A first draft is all your ideas, without restraint, or taste, or manners, or patience. Just write the damned thing. We’ll fix it later.

With that in mind, take your plan for a 1000 word story, and write it up into a first draft. It shouldn’t take much time. Writing is a skill you build up over time, typing will come along with it. If you set yourself a little time to work every day, you’ll soon be able to write well over 1000 words in a single sitting. If you aren’t there yet, don’t worry. Write your first act, don’t think too much. Just plug away at it. Then go take a break, think about something else, then come back and do the next. Soon you’ll have all three written. They might be terrible. But they’ll be done.

Stage 3 – Rewriting

Once your first draft is done, you let it settle. Maybe for a day, maybe for a few days, maybe longer. The idea is to come back to the work with a clear head. Now you put on the editor’s hat, the nagging voice that has been trying to drown out everything else through this entire process. Now you re-read your story, and you make changes.

I don’t love rewriting. After the first draft is when the fun ends for me. About the only pleasure I get from rewriting is seeing good writing slowly being brought out of the bad. Again, everyone’s approach is different. Some start almost from scratch, using their first draft as a loose plan to a major rewrite. I don’t have the stamina for that, personally I prefer a read and polish approach. I take a finished first draft, save a backup so I can always go back to it, and the I read the story through. I try to detach myself from it, and read it as I would any book I’d picked up from the shelf. Every time I hit something that doesn’t read right, anything that sticks in my mind as feeling wrong, I rewrite it. When I get to the end of the story, I start again. When I can read the story through comfortably, I pass it on to some other people to read and get some feedback. A word of warning though, it is possible to rewrite too much. To get too caught up in the process, and essentially write your story to death. Draining your own writing of all its character and humanity in an attempt to get the writing cleaner, purer. If you’ve got to the point where you’re just swapping words in and out and it’s not making much of a difference, it’s time to stop.

Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing, describes rewriting as being like a sculptor working stone, with each pass of the chisel bringing out more detail and refinement to the finished piece. It’s an analogy that really works for me, and it keeps me going through the lengthy process.

I’ve gotten better at it as the years have gone by. My first story published, Christmas Past, was a nightmare rewrite. I read and re-read that story so many times for months that I could still tell you every line from the book. Over time, your writing grows and improves. Today my first drafts come out cleaner, and my rewriting goes quicker.

Now it’s back to you. After you’ve given your first draft some time, go back. Read it, re-read it, and edit it as you go. Try to make the writing smooth, make it read well and feel confident and clear. When you’ve subjected it to a re-write or two, let it settle again. Read it after a few days and see how it feels, share it with others and see what they think. It might need another rewrite, but if you can step back and say “I’ve taken this as far as I can” then well do, you have successfully written your first story!

The Legend of Zelda – The Wind Waker – Review

Hey guys, this is another review carried across from my old DooYoo account. I believe this is the last of my Zelda reviews, but I like to save the best ’til last. This was written before Wind Waker HD hit WiiU.

Zelda WWNintendo’s Legend of Zelda series is easily one of the most well designed and superbly executed series of games around. They are, to me, the definitive adventure, puzzle and RPG titles; offering superb gameplay and excellent characterisation that has something for everyone. While the gameplay style is fairly consistent from game to game, we rarely see more than one or two titles a generation and so it doesn’t get old as you’d think. Often, playing a new Zelda title is more like slipping into an familiar old jumper. I suppose what I’m saying is that if you’ve played a Zelda game before, you know what to expect. Usually, excellence. While the series has branched out a bit in recent years with sequels and side stories on the DS, Nintendo’s home console is always the place for the main adventure, the significant chapters that contribute most to the overall story. This is definitely one of those chapters.

The Wind Waker was the first Zelda title released for the Gamecube and presented a major change in direction from its predecessors, Ocarina of Time and its direct sequel Majora’s Mask. From the start Nintendo seem intent to push the series into new ground, the influence of Ocarina of Time is never far off however. As the game opens, we are informed that many centuries have passed since the Hero of Time defeated the evil Ganon and sealed him away in a magical prison; referencing the events of Ocarina. Since then, the world has changed a great deal and thanks to a great catastrophe, much of it is underwater. Here we find Link on his tenth birthday, he and his family live on a small island surrounded by a vast ocean. To mark the special day, he is given an outfit resembling Link’s usual green gear, complete with his famous pointed hat. Young Link isn’t too impressed with this dorky getup but his grandmother politely reminds him that all boys are dressed like the famous hero on their tenth birthday, it’s tradition. Trouble soon erupts on the island as Link’s sister is abducted by a giant bird, rumours that other young girls have been snatched leads Link out into the wide ocean to save the day. Along the way, he strikes up a friendship with a talking boat, visits the flooded land below and even faces off against an ancient enemy. It’s a vast world to explore and the story is great; a good foundation for any Zelda game.

The Wind Waker distinguishes itself from other entries in the series somewhat with its distinct style. The most obvious element of this is the unique artistic direction taken with the visuals. Unlike the more realistic Ocarina of Time, Nintendo developed Wind Waker to resemble a living cartoon. Using early but excellent cel-shading techniques they have created a game in which the very environments seem to have been formed up out of acrylic paint. It’s very effectively done and is probably one of the most beautiful games ever made. Stylised art also dates far more favourably than realism in the video game world and so Wind Waker is still easily one of the best looking games around.

Wind Waker SailingThis visual approach suits the games back to basic approach very well. We are following a Link that is very young, similarly to earlier titles such as A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening. While the game inherits the stronger puzzle elements of Ocarina of Time, it really strives to play on different sides of the series’ heritage. It’s an approach that works very well, creating a Zelda story that is more accessible for younger players while still being deep and challenging.

Unfortunately, Zelda is a long running and very successful series which leaves it contending with its own fans. The Wind Waker suffered from a great deal f criticism from these fans before it even saw release. Despite a history of varying styles, Wind Waker’s more stylised graphics and colourful story were attacked as selling out. Nothing could be further from the truth, this game is absolutely excellent throughout and produced with a real caring hand. Still, it performs the biggest crime in the eyes of fandom, it attempts to be different.

While Zelda titles released on the Gamecube and Wii since have reverted back to the style of the Nintendo 64 games, it’s nice to see that Wind Waker’s influence is carried on in a series of titles for the Nintendo DS. These offer a lot of new gameplay ideas but maintain the cel shaded style that suits the system very well.

If you’re a newcomer to the Zelda series or just missed this one the first time around, The Wind Waker is an easy one to recommend. It’s as long lasting and intelligent as other entries in the series but has a nice feel to it that sets it apart. It’s easily one of the best home console versions and much better than Twilight Princess a few years ago.

This title will also play on a Nintendo Wii, however it will require a Gamecube controller to play. It is, unfortunately, a little hard to get a hold of and will set you back around £15. It’s as good as any new title though and well worth the investment.

Welcome to the New Blog!

Hello!

If you came here from my old WordPress.com page, you’ll know that I just migrated everything that was there, over to here and everything looks much the same. If you’re knew here, you won’t know any of that, but you’re welcome all the same.

I have moved my blog over to my own hosting and domain because it just makes sense for the future. WordPress.com is a really good service for free hosting and I recommend it to everyone as their first step in blogging, but I’d just grown past it. Sure, it was a lot more fiddly and time consuming just getting the blog to look the same as it did before, but I have a lot more options open to me now.

A big part of why I have this blog is to promote my writing. Part of that is posting stories, and reviewing other great books, films and games that have influenced me, and WordPress.com was great for that, but I also need to be able to incorporate other services I use into the blog more. That means plugins, my own hosting, flexibility. Anything that can streamline my workload makes the change a little more worthwhile.

More importantly, while WordPress.com doesn’t take any sort of ownership of your content, in a way they do control your site. You are at their whim. Paying for my own hosting and domain lets me take control of my work, and my platform in a way I couldn’t before.

So, I hope you’ll all forgive me for the inconvenience. Now let’s resume regular service.

Owen

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – Review

As with my Ocarina of Time review, this was originally posted on Dooyoo. Reposting it here because I’m still on a big Zelda kick. 

Darknut-twilightThe last few years have seen the Zelda franchise splinter in two directions. The “offspring” of Wind Waker are thriving on the DS, while games like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword represent the “main” series; the franchise flagships, and find themselves firmly plonked on Nintendo’s home console. Twilight Princess is something of a bridging game, the last major title to see release on the Gamecube and one of the launch titles for the Wii; it kickstarted Nintendo’s new found success and no doubt brought in a lot of fans early on. In many respects it is typical of the series, offering a familiar combination of dungeon exploring, puzzle solving and adventuring, however it also takes time to really try out new things. It makes a few missteps along the way but Twilight Princess is, at times, a surprisingly original entry; though not perfect.

Things get off to a good start with Twilight Princess standing alone, requiring no back story or catchup intros. You begin as a young goatherd in a small village, your first hour or so will be spent here simply meeting characters you’ll come to know and helping out with the small problems that crop up in day to day life. It’s a slow yet rewarding opening that introduces you to the main features of the game, particularly the control scheme, without piling on too much challenge early on. Different tasks in the village will see you fish, climb, call birds from the skies and even scare a monkey, before the adventure really kicks off. It will be a slow beginning for those eager to get right to the dungeons, but it really worked for me. Soon however, the Kingdom of Hyrule is attacked and a shadowy twilight falls over the world. You are transformed by the dark powers into a rather friendly looking wolf and with the help of Midna, a spirit from the Twilight, you must go on a quest to return to your human form.

This however is just how the story begins and before you reach the end you’ll have had some surprisingly varied experiences. I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that you will return to human form soon enough, though a short spell as a canine is never far away as you must repeatedly venture into twilight blighted lands. This dual world, dual character setup works surprisingly well and riffs a lot on themes established way back in A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo. It creates a second perspective on every area and each new land must be cleansed before you can really progress through it. The ultimate effect of this is that the player is uniquely connected to the threat that consumes the land, entering Twilight not only changes your body but releases more challenging puzzles and monsters, a very real effect the player must confront.

You will also have access to the series’ remarkable arsenal of boomerangs, bombs and other bric-a-brac. These are collected as your work your way through the game’s numerous dungeons and usually serve as the key to their completion. Weapons in Zelda titles rarely serve no purpose, instead the designers use the addition of new skills to craft progressively more fiendish puzzles. It’s a good system but unfortunately it is becoming very familiar territory by now, often I felt a little disappointed when I could think of a couple of good solutions to a puzzle only to find that I was only allowed to use one specific weapon to proceed when five or so others would have done the job.

It’s a little hard to sum up my feelings for Twilight Princess because I find myself wondering on what standards to judge it. As an entry in the overall series, it is one of the most successful. The balance of dungeons to over world exploration is probably the best the series has achieved and it’s fair to say that I was never frustrated with the rate of progress. I also particularly liked the story and the characters. There were a lot of times when I felt more connected to this world than in a lot of other games I’ve played, a feeling I credit to that well paced introduction. And yet, certain aspects of Twilight Princess left me surprisingly hollow.

I have written before of the enjoyment I had with The Wind Waker on the Gamecube, despite the criticism it received I felt the art style to be beautiful and the overall story to be nearly perfect. While Twilight Princess is probably a better title when compared to The Wind Waker, I’m not sure it moves the series forward in any meaningful way. Part of the game’s problem is that for all its original ideas, it tries too hard to be Ocarina of Time. The tone of the game, the return to a dual world approach and even the nice, gentle opening are so clearly taken from the N64 hit that often I felt as though it were a simple remake. While this seems to have been a hit with the series fans, I want to see the series try new things, Twilight Princess seems like too little, too late. While Ocarina on the Nintendo 64 was a revolutionary game, arriving at just the right time to impress all the right people, Twilight Princess isn’t. Rather, it is a small step in a long line of small steps that just happens the travel the furthest so far.

Graphically, while Twilight Princess is a reasonably attractive game, most of that comes from its well defined visual style. It’s very clearly a Gamecube title that has had Wii functionality hammered on (though successfully.) While character models are all fairly impressive, scenery features a lot of very simple design choices and some depressingly muddy textures. The game was ready for release about a year before the Wii hit the shelves and so it doesn’t even attempt to exploit the Wii’s extra power and merely settles for what it has. Furthermore, it is games such as these, with vast surroundings and foliage that really show the Wii’s shortcomings when it comes to resolution. A bump of a few pixels would have really cleaned things up and it’s such a shame that for all the fun I had playing Twilight Princess, I kept wishing I were playing it on a different console.

In the end, it’s very hard to fault Twilight Princess when taken on its own merits and I had no qualms about giving it the full five stars. Taken as part of a series however, I couldn’t help being a little let down. It really doesn’t break the mould and it was a shame to see the Wind Waker backlash have such an influence. I could help feeling that Twilight Princess wasn’t just designed with adults in mind but was done so to the exclusion of younger players, something I would have never wanted to see. In the end I found it surprising that despite the many good things I had to say about Twilight Princess, I enjoyed Phantom Hourglass a lot more.

However, if you are a Wii owner you can’t do much better than this. It’s a first rate title that offers a lot for adults and older children, there’s nothing I’d class as being seriously unsuitable for a young child in here but there are a few scary moments and it can be very challenging. It’s available at most game shops stocking Wii games and will probably still set you back around £15.