My Characters On a Sabbatical

Cocktail
Photo by ‘Robert Owen-Wahl’ Link: CharterForCompassion.org from FreeImages

Things don’t always go to plan, when writing a story. For instance, the protagonists in my latest story are currently frozen in time, as I try to work out what they are going to do next. It’s as if they’re at a stage in their journey where they have to change course and head off in a slightly different direction, but they don’t know which direction to go in.

Oh, I know where I want them to end up, pretty much, and I know roughly how they are going to get there, but it’s the details that are currently eluding me. Do they turn left or right when they leave the door? Do they stick together or split up, and (maybe) get back together again later? One of them has a secret. Does it come out now, or later, and what are the knock-on effects from the revelation?

So, they are on a sabbatical at present, sitting by the side of a pool somewhere in the storyverse, sipping cocktails and asking each other “Where do you think he will send us next?”

When I come to a sticking point in a story there are a number of courses of action that I could take. One is to abandon the story for a while, like I am doing with the story in question. Or I could force the narrative onward.

This second course of action is generally much harder, but on occasion I have taken it. Generally it means I write a few words, maybe a sentence on two, then play a game or take the dog for a walk. Then I push it a step or two further. And so on, until the log jam breaks and the words start to flow more freely.

This works for me. I know, though, that other people do things differently. There are many tricks to break the log jam, which is sometimes called a writer’s block. For instance there are web sites which produce a random sentence, often of the form “<subject> <verb> <object>” with maybe few random adjectives thrown for good measure. I can see how this would help, if the writer’s narrative fit the suggestion reasonably closely, but often this is not the case. (Others may be luckier than I am, of course).

I can’t say that I suffer from writer’s block, though. I’ve shelved stories for up to a decade or so, but that more because I wanted to do other things than because I can’t advance the narrative. It’s more temporary loss of enthusiasm than a block. But it does bring the narrative to a temporary halt.


Most of my stories have been or will eventually be published on Amazon and Kobobooks. Here are the links to my Author Pages.

[Please note, I’ve decided to share my stories here only as PDFs. If you would prefer a different format, for example, an ePub file, just let me know through my feedback form.]

Three New Short Stories

The Girl, the Boy, and the Dragon

Idris was a dragon. Not a huge, fierce, fire-breathing dragon. No, Idris was a tiny, two weeks out of the egg, baby dragon, who had lost his mother. Fortunately Idris had met a young human, Jim, who was on the run, though he’d committed no crime. Jim didn’t know how to return Idris to his mother, but fortunately he had a plan.

Download the short story as a PDF here.

How to Save a World

How do you stop mankind from wiping itself out through constant war? Why, you form a special team to use their talents to change the mindset of the leaders and persuade them that diplomacy and trade are a better answer to conflict than constant war. If that isn’t enough there’s one other course of action that will bring peace to a troubled world.

Download the story as a PDF here.

The World Within

Fi seems to be just like any young girl just starting University, but she isn’t. She has a secret. Fi does her best to fit in, and quickly settles into Varsity life. She finds that her new friends, Jess and Felix, also have a secret, one which comes between Jess and her boyfriend, Mark. Fi quietly tries to find out what Jess’ problem is, at first without success.

Download the story as a PDF here.

These three stories will eventually form part of my next “Mage and Boffin” collection of stories, to be published on Amazon and Kobobooks. Here are the links to my Author Pages.

[Please note, I’ve decided to share my stories here only as PDFs. If you would prefer a different format, for example, an ePub file, just let me know through my feedback form.]

Writing is dangerous

Old rickety bridge
Photo by Raphael Pto from FreeImages

Writing is dangerous. When you put that pen to paper, or more likely, hit that first key, you don’t know where you will end up. You set up a situation, a garden, say, with God, a tree, a couple, and a serpent. The serpent urges the woman to eat fruit from the forbidden tree, but, of course, she doesn’t because God forbade it, and she and her husband live happily ever after in the garden.

Hmm, that’s a bit of a dead end, but I’d guess that you could think of improvements. Let’s say that God visits them one day.

“Adam, Eve, are you happy here?” asks God.

“It’s brilliant. We love it.”

“”How do you know?”

“You told us. You’re God. You must be right.”

“Just eat one of the apples on that tree, guys, please.”

Sounds of munching.

“Erm, God, what’s it like out there?”

“There’s misery, pain, trouble and worries, and there’s also joy, love, happiness. There’s also kids, who roll up all those things into one delightful, infuriating package.”

“Can we go and see?”

“Yeah, but you can’t come back again.”

“OK. We understand. Where’s the door?”

Stained Glass - Adam and Eve
Photo by Janet Burgess from FreeImages

So, I didn’t know where that was going and I’ve only just started! Obviously, I began from the Garden of Eden, and had Eve resist the blandishments of the serpent. Then I had God urge Adam and Eve to eat the fruit, and consequently Adam and Eve became curious about ‘out there’. God’s going to have to cut them some slack out there, since it was He who encouraged them to eat the fruit, but I’ll leave it there, for now.

In “The Lord of the Rings” Bilbo Baggins recites a poem several times. Bilbo is referring to a real journey of course, but writing a story is much like a journey. You start off with the first word, or the first step, and you have no idea where your journey or story may take you. No idea at all.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

At some point, your feet, or your words, come across a broader way. Your feet may encounter a highway, and other people. Your words may lead you to a larger narrative, in which are embedded new characters. These characters all have ambitions and objectives. They may help or hinder you. And so the road or narrative goes on, leading you to who knows where. Whither then? You cannot say.

As a writer you live your characters. You say their words. You fight their demons. You love their loves, and sometimes you die their deaths. You experience their defeats and their triumphs. You are the hero and the villain.

Pears on a tree
Photo by Linda DuBose from FreeImages

At the same time, paradoxically, you can’t predict what happens. Any writer knows the feeling of surprise when something unexpected happens. When Adam and Eve eventually find their way back to the Garden and politely request entry, God lets them in, because, after all, he told them them to eat fruit from the Tree of Curiosity. What? You thought it was the Tree of Knowledge? If the fruit gave them knowledge, why did they have to leave the Garden? They would have known what’s out there just by eating the pear from the Tree.

And God and Adam and Eve would sit down and Adam and Eve would relate their story. Oh, God would already know it of course, but a story, even if you know it, always sounds better coming someone else. They’d introduce their kids,  and God would ask them if they wanted to stay. Adam looks at Eve and they shake their heads. Nah, Eden is OK, but it’s a bit boring, duplicitous serpents aside. They’ll take real life. God saw what He had done, and it was good.

Writing is dangerous. You never know where it is going to take you, and you never know how long it will take. You start with one sentence and the next thing you know you have a whole book. You will have agonised with your characters, you will have been surprised or shocked at what they get up to, and you will discover that the house is a mess and the dog will have left you.

Yellow Labrador
Photo by ! Dujazz from FreeImages

Writing is dangerous. It soaks up you time, your energy, and possibly your money. You will have forgotten to do your washing, your diet will have lacked balance and vitamins, and your garden will resemble a jungle.

Writing is dangerous. You sit back having completed your story. And rewritten it, perhaps several times. And altered it, added characters, removed characters, changed characters. And spell checked. And grammar and syntax checked. Dozen of times. And then you have a thought. The serpent. Embodiment of evil? Or God’s loyal servant doing God’s bidding, maybe?

Writing is dangerous. Even after you’ve finally, finally finished, you sit back, momentarily satisfied. Then you jolt upright. That documentary on waterfalls! What if the world was split by a single humongous waterfall. Those living at the top would naturally look down from above and see the lands below, but they wouldn’t be able to reach them. Those down below look up and see the towering waters and wonder if there is anything up there. Then some intrepid top-dweller invents a hot air balloon and floats over the waterfall and his craft descends to the lands below. And then…

And then you type the first sentence and everything begins again.

Empty Valley
Photo by Wim Delen from FreeImages

The Coming Apocalypse

Bombed out church
Photo by Lisa Setrini-Espinosa from FreeImages

I see people and nations trying to come to terms with global warming, but the efforts to reverse it seems disorganised, incomplete and ineffective. Governments sign agreements containing measures that sound good, but which are not implemented or implemented badly, and all the time the ice melts and the ice caps break apart.

I see Greta Thunberg ranting at the United Nations about their inaction on climate change. She has a point. If the world is to be saved, then those in power should take decisive action, now. But she is preaching to the wrong congregation. Most of those in the UN are in the later stages of their careers. The people that Greta should be taking to task are those of her parents’ generation, those who are just coming into their powers, mainly the millennials.

Can the millennials save the world? I think not.

Can the world be saved through democratic processes? I think not.

The problem with global warming is not the flooding of islands and the melting of the icecaps inundating coastal areas. People can always move inland. No, the problem is inland, in the areas that grow the crops that feed the world and in the forests that provide the life-giving oxygen and remove the stifling carbon dioxide. Global warming is going to inevitably cause crops to fail and forests to die. Droughts, floods, storms that devastate large parts of whole countries will become common.

Dry ground
Photo by Scott Liddell from FreeImages

This will lead to food shortages and famine. Famine leads to the spread of disease and to war, as those without food invade those areas which have food, and those who have food fight to keep what they have. Inevitably the wars will result in the inability of the food growing areas to produce food, leading to deepening famine, and deaths in the billions.

Technology will suffer. The things that we use every day, like cooking equipment, technology that we utilize to entertain ourselves, or our means of communication, like our smartphones, will not be produced as people find it necessary to concentrate on obtaining food rather than producing technological wonders. The networks will fail.

We will see the failure of democracy and the rise of autocracies as wars proliferate and famine and disease spread.

Fidel Castro
Photo by Mike Minor from FreeImages

The autocracies and wholesale death by famine and disease may be the saving of the human race. If the human race is decimated, the pressure on the planet may ease, and the forests may return, springing up from remnants of the original forests or from species that have imported into the area by humans of our era. The autocrats may force workers to recreate the forests, because, after all, they will have experienced the effects of global warming. They can compel whereas democracies cannot. Autocrats are not magnanimous, but their best interests will hopefully be served by an end to global warming.

Where does that leave us? With a human population of much less than a billion. With the forests returning, maybe not the original forests, but forests made up of different species from other parts of the globe. There will be animals, but probably not the original species. With temperatures falling, and oceans returning to health.

There will be countries, but not the countries of today, and it is unlikely that any global organization, like the United Nations will remain. All current treaties and agreements will be long gone, replaced by other more local agreements and treaties.

Indigenous peoples may resurge in some places, but disappear in other.

It will be a world unlike our current world. Technology will have reverted as the huge factories needed to support it will have gone, but the knowledge may be retained, and the technology may resurge, but probably in a simpler fashion, using fewer resources. The day of the mega-factory will be over.

People will not fly around the world, and would probably live, and die close to where they were born. Large cities, of the size of London, Shanghi, or New York, will probably die, but smaller cities will likely survive.

That is the best case scenario. In the worst case the famines and wars will reduce the human race to very small numbers, and once the decline has got to those sorts of levels, the human race will fade away. No species resurges to previous levels after a die off of this magnitude without outside help. Where are the aliens when you need them ?

Inflatable aliens
Photo by Cheryl Empey from FreeImages

Writing and Arrogance

Arrogance
Arrogance

Have you ever written a word and wondered if you spelled it right? You say to yourself, “That word looks weird!” But the spellchecker doesn’t underline the word. It must be right, mustn’t it? I typed “arrogance” above and it looked wrong, but it is right.

Anyway, that is an aside. As I’m taking a break from the GIMP and Blender, I decided to do some writing. I had an idea in mind, but when I started to write, another story decided it wanted to be written. I mean this seriously, though, obviously stories can’t actually decide anything. It just feels like that.

I had vaguely thought of submitting the story, when I had finished it, in a competition, but it got longer and longer and by the time I had tied up all the loose ends, it had exceeded the competition limit. Rats!

So, I took a copy of the story and set about shrinking it. That’s not too hard, in practise, but it does change the story. I got it down below the limit, but then I had doubts about whether or not it was good enough in the shrunken version. Or for that matter the full version.

Reducing the Size
Reducing the Size

So I asked my daughter.  I didn’t show her about the story, but I asked her questions like “How would you react if this happened….” At the end she said something which shocked me. She said something like “It has to be really different from <a TV series>, otherwise it is not worth writing.”

My story did have similarities to the TV series. Was it different enough to make it interesting? It’s a lot of work, blood, sweat and tears, to write a story. Now it appeared that, not only do I have to ask myself, “Is it good enough?”, but I also have to ask myself, “Is it too similar to anything else?” Ouch!

OK, I took that on board and I’ve parked the abbreviated version for a while, and I’m working on the slightly longer version. I’ll see if I can polish the shorter version until it glows like a pearl later maybe.

This is Weka
This is a Weka. He came up in a search for “short” and “long” for some reason.

So, around the time that I was revising the shorter version, I came across several web pages which categorised adverbs as bad. If a famous writer like Stephen King thinks that adverbs are bad, then they must be bad, right? Well, I invite you to go on a search for articles about adverbs and writing, and while they mostly stop short of demonising adverbs, the consensus is that it is best, and usually more descriptive, if you don’t use them.

OK, I’m convinced. Mostly. So I had a look at my stories and replaced or removed as many adverbs as I could find. That added a few dozen words to each version, so I still had work to do to get the short version down to the limit. Oh well.

This is where the arrogance comes in. (The word still looks weird!) I’ve never read any articles or tutorials on how to write stories. I always just sit down and write. I don’t have even so much as a skeleton of a plan, and indeed, my stories often end up in places that I hadn’t even thought about when I started. I have generally been thinking about the story for some time before I start. I usually have a character or characters in mind and one or two scenes (for want of a better word).

Wooden Dragon
Dragon without her rider

Maybe the lead character sits on her dinosaur at the top of the mountain pass and contemplates the view before she descends to the peace conference. Or the big battle. She and I will find out which it is as she follows her friends and comrades down into the valley.

So, I searched out a few articles on how to write a story. I’d expected them to all insist on a plan or a synopsis. A character list, a world for them to interact in, and a reason for them to interact. Days, weeks, maybe months before I would get to write a word.

Of course some do suggest that sort of thing, and sometimes they even suggest using spreadsheets! For the record, I’ve tried that, even before I read the articles, before I’d written much at all. It seemed logical. Get the ducks in a row and you can knock them off one by one.

It might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. As my story grew, it deviated from my plan, and I didn’t go back and change it. Change it? I didn’t even look at it. But it did give me a start.

People on a Beach
People on a beach. (The logos imply that they are probably filming turtles)

OK, the Prince didn’t rescue the Princess from a dragon. No, the Prince rescued his Prince from a forced marriage to the Princess, who was pleased because she was über-friendly with the strapping female leader of the Guard. Only the Princess’ parents were miffed.

I might use this seed of a story sometime. But it started with the idea of someone rescuing someone from something, and I was already vaguely dissatisfied with standard boy saves girl and they fall in love thing. That’s just the Hero Syndrome. Boring. The above scenario still uses the syndrome, but it does give it a bit of a twist.

But anyway, he said, returning to the point, I discovered that the articles on how to write a story were full of useful advice, including in some cases, suggesting the avoidance of adverbs. Who knew? Well not me obviously.

Problem
Problem or Puzzle

The articles were full of good advice, techniques for pressing on when you are stuck, which is something that doesn’t happen to me. Many of them emphasise the trio of people, problem, and place.

What I mean by that is that almost every story needs characters. Oh, of course they needn’t be human. Almost every story needs a reason for the characters to interact, and they to have somewhere to interact.

Take the film “Lost in Space“. The ‘people’ were the Robinson family, together with the Robot and Doctor Zachary Smith. The ‘problem’ was that, because of Smith’s actions they had crash landed on an alien planet and couldn’t make it home. The ‘place’ was obviously the alien planet. Consideration of these three components no doubt helped the writers of the series. I’ll bear that in mind in future.

I’m going to read more of these “How to Write” web pages, to see what I can glean. It was arrogant of me to think that they had nothing to offer me. If I come across something that seems to me to be extra useful, I may write about later.

Alien landscape
Alien landscape

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. Just search for my name, Cliff Pratt. I mainly write fantasy fiction.

A UFO drawn in the GIMP

I’ve been playing around with the GIMP recently, drawing stuff, rather than editing or touching up photos. I decided to try to draw a small UFO, and the following post shows how I did it. There’s almost certainly better ways to do it, but I’m no Gimp guru!

[For those who don’t know, the GIMP is a free image processing program available for Windows, Linux and Mac, which has similar abilities to Adobe Photoshop.]

My main idea was to create the UFO as a rectangular image, and then to use the “Map Object” filter that comes with the GIMP to wrap this image around a sphere. So, first I created a rectangular image, four to five times as wide as it was high.

I wanted to have two chains of windows encircling the UFO, so the next step was to create a small layer for a single window. There are many ways to create a new layer, and I’m not going to go into details of all the methods. Please read the Gimp documentation if you want to know more.

One way is to open the Layers dialog either through the “Windows” menu or simply by hitting Ctrl + L, and using the small button at the bottom to create the new layer. I recommend right clicking the new Layer and giving it a name through the “Edit Layer Attributes…” option.

Anyway, having created a new layer, I selected a small rectangular area on it, and filled it with the foreground colour, black, then I used the “Select” menu “Grow…” option to grow it by 10 pixels all round. Here’s what I had at this stage. Note the Layers dialog on the right. I always keep the Layers dialog open as it is so useful!

OK, that’s a little hard to read, I know. The important bit is the bit in the middle, the black square surrounded by a white border, the current selection. I selected “Crop to Selection” on the Layer menu to shrink the Layer to the smallest size needed.

The next stage was to create more window layers with a window in each, so I just clicked the small copy button in the middle of the bottom of the Layers dialog about ten times, with no visible change to the image. This is because all the new layers get created right on top of one another! However, all the layers are listed in the Layers dialog on the right of the screen.

I then used the Move tool to move the new layers to different positions on the screen. I made sure that I’d spread them all out. See below.

As you can see, they are not exactly aligned and spaced, so that was my next task, using the alignment tool. I wanted this middle row to to be evenly spread along the mid line of the image, so in the alignment tool properties dialog I selected “Relative to     Active layer”. Then I selected all the layers on the middle line, and finally selected the Background layer. I selected the button to align the layers on the mid line of the image (the lower middle of the six buttons in the “Align” section) then I selected the button to distribute the layers evenly across the image (the one on the right of the first row of the “Distribution” section). Now the image looked like this :

So now I needed to make the second line of windows, just about the first line. So I created a further eight windows by repeatedly copying one of the lower windows, then I spread them out slightly above the other line.

Then using the alignment tool, I selected all the windows in the new line. I changed the “Relative to” value using the drop down menu to “First Item”, then aligned the windows to the first one by using the middle button in the second row of the “Align” section. The reason I aligned the windows to the first window rather than active layer is because otherwise the windows would simply overlay the first set.

Now I needed to space out the windows, so, leaving them selected, I changed the “Relative to” value back to “Active Layer”, then used the right most button on the first row of the “Distribute” section to spread the windows evenly along the line. They now matched the first line, as shown below.

At this stage I saved the image to disk, in case of accidents. The GIMP lets you undo the steps that you have taken in editing or creating an image, but sometimes (especially if you are experimenting), it is useful be able to abandon all your fiddling and start again from a known good image. However, saving an image means that you can’t backtrack from that version of the image.

Now I needed to apply the filter, but the filter appears to only work on a single layer of an image, so I flattened the image to a single layer (using the Image menu), and applied the Map Object filter to the resulting image (Filter->Map->Map Object…). I changed the lighting to make it appear that the lighting was coming from above and to the right and I also adjusted the orientation a little so that viewpoint was slightly below the UFO, as if it was flying overhead. These are options in the filter. I clicked OK and got the following result.

And that is it. It’s a simple enough image, but good enough for my purposes, and it shows a number of simple GIMP techniques. To create the image at the top of the post I merely hid the background layer and filled the areas around the UFO with sky blue. I hope that this post will be useful to someone.  Obviously there is a lot of scope to improve the image, perhaps by adding doors to the lower part, landing legs and so on, but it will do me for now.

Acknowledgement : Much of the stuff on the usage of the Alignment Tool was gleaned from this article. Many thanks to the author, Debi Dallo.

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. I mainly write fantasy fiction.

My Books on Amazon

I’ve found that it is not easy to find my books Amazon. Simply searching for my name as author might find them, and it might not. Below I’ve listed my books and the Amazon ASIN numbers. I’ve also included a direct link to my books using the ASIN numbers.

[Update: My books on Amazon can be found a lot easier on my Author’s Page.]

If you use the links below and still have problems please leave me feedback and I will see what I can do to advise you. In particular, you may get a message like this : “This title is not currently available for purchase”. The message may be caused by technical issues at http://www.amazon.com.

The Last Beautiful Woman (Kindle)
ASIN : B07G6V3YZS
Link : https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07G6V3YZS

The Last Beautiful Woman (Paperback)
ASIN : 0473448858
Link : https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0473448858

How I Wrote and Self Published My First Book (Kindle)
ASIN : B07GB6GZ3N
Link : https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07GB6GZ3N

The Mage and The Boffin (Kindle)
ASIN : B07JLG1YV5
Link : https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07JLG1YV5

 

A new book and an update

I’ve just published my latest book, “The Mage and The Boffin”. It can be found at your favourite eBook publisher. Just search for my name, “Cliff Pratt” and it should appear in the list.

It is a book of short stories featuring the two title characters and their friends and relations. Some of the stories relate in some degree to fairy stories and legends, but they are not simple retelling of the stories and are significantly different from them.

I have also updated my brief book, “How I Wrote and Self Published My First Book: My Path Through the Creative Maze”. This describes in some detail how I published “The Last Beautiful Woman” and why, and may be useful to anyone who is going down the same path. This is only available on Amazon as a Kindle book. If you don’t have a Kindle you will need a Kindle app.

A New Book – the Mage and the Boffin

I intend to publish a new book in the next couple of weeks. It will consist of short stories about my characters the Mage and the Boffin. I still have to write a prologue and tidy a few things up. If you want to read the stories (for free, at least for now), you can find them on my website here.

Currently I intend to publish the book as an eBook, but may also make it available as a paperback on Amazon. Watch this space!

In the meantime, I have added a new Mage and Boffin story called “The Man in the Mountain“. It tells of the last few days of the life of King Arthur, from the point of view of the Mage and the Boffin.