All posts by Nick Travers

How to Create Meaning Through Story


What is better way to write your story than by creating a novel that delights and entertains your readers?  Maybe creating something that addresses the deep questions of life – something with meaning.

Not every writer strives for meaning in their work, but if you dream of having an impact on the world, however small, through your writing, then meaning is what you are after.

All stories, no matter what their subject, are ultimately about the human condition.

The first step to creating meaning is to choose a theme for your novel.  This is not the same as creating your plot, which may have nothing directly to do with your theme.  For instance, in my second dystopian steampunk novel, Coggler’s Brood, the plot is about Nina Swift, the protagonist, trying to deliver a package given into her care, which is the Mcguffin (see related post), but the theme is, ‘How far will Nina go to thwart her mother’s evil plans.’  In essence, I am exploring Nina’s morals – will she stoop to the monstrous depths of her mother in order to overcome her mother, if not, how far will she go?

The theme will, of course, have a direct impact on the plot: Initially, the theme will be hardly noticeable and the plot devises will dominate, but by the end of the novel the entire plot will revolve around the moral theme and Nina’s moral choices.

Working the theme into the plot is a relentlessly subtle process with one golden rule: you can never actually state the theme, or, for that mater, have a character state the theme.  For a satisfying reading experience, the reader must discover the theme for themselves – they must extrapolate the theme from the actions and character development of the novel in its entirety, i.e. the theme must be expressed and developed through ‘showing’ not ‘telling.’

Ideally, the aim of Coggler’s Brood is to leave readers pondering their own morals and questioning how far they would stoop to save the world, but it may just leave them wondering how much they are like their parents and questioning whether this is a good thing or not.  In either event, I, the author, will have had an impact on the world.

Writing: changing the world one reader at a time.
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Whether you weave your theme into the story by plotting it out first or by adding it in at the final edit, is irrelevant, but you must do it.  Whatever stage you do it at, there are three question that must be addressed for every action and piece of dialogue in the novel:

How does this action/dialogue advance the plot.

How does this action/dialogue advance the theme.

How does this action/dialogue advance character development (this question may apply to one or more characters or every character).

Developing the theme of a novel is a subtle and relentless process that is learned through experience.  I don’t claim to be an expert, far from it, but I’m going to keep striving, one novel at a time, until I perfect the techniques, because I want my writing to have an impact on the world.

In researching this blog, I found an excellent article from Julia Bell which expands on themes much better than I can. So I will eave you, with full credits and links, the relevant points from Julia’s Blog:


Extract from a blog post by creative writing lecturer Julia Bell.

Julia Bell“Sometimes as a teacher you feel like you’re trapped in a groundhog day, repeating the same pieces of advice every year, just to a different cohort of students, although as I get older and more forgetful perhaps I’m just repeating myself and students are being too polite to call me on it.

In any given year these are the pointers about writing good prose – novels and stories – that I find myself saying over and over, but they are also in themselves, light bulb moments from my own practice as writer.

1. A good piece of writing is an experience for the reader. The meaning of a story or a novel does not pre-exist the writing of it. You can’t write with a manifesto in your hand unless you are intent on writing parables or sermons. Technique – point of view, character, sentence structure, style – are all in service to the creation of this experience.

2. The writing of a story should be an experience for the writer too. The work needs to transmit something – love, anger, jealousy, rage, disturbance, (add your own abstract noun here) – but you can’t experience these abstractions in prose just by using the abstract noun. In fiction, meaning is delivered through concrete detail and description. Don’t tell me that your character is angry, show them throwing the ashtray. As a rule of thumb if your work makes you feel – cry, laugh, explode – chances are it’s transmitting something of this to the reader too.

3. Make your story question the world. A story should never set out to answer a question, rather it should pose the question correctly. Here I am paraphrasing advice from Chekhov. Good writing offers up a knotty picture of the world for a reader to untangle: Over here, reader! Look at this tangle of thorns! A story which ties everything up in neat conclusions might be more commercial (read Disney) but if it doesn’t make us question the world then it cannot claim to be art.”

Julia’s post first appeared on the On the Write Track blog, where you can read the article in full


Julia Bell is a writer and Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck College, London where she teaches on the Creative Writing MA and is Project Director of the Writers’ Hub website. She is the author of three novels, most recently The Dark Light to be published in July 2015, the co editor of The Creative Writing Coursebook as well as three volumes of short stories most recently The Sea In Birmingham. She also takes photographs, writes poetry, short stories, occasional essays and journalism, and is the co-curator of spoken word night In Yer Ear. Follow her on Twitter at@JuliaBell.

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Why writing what you know doesn’t work

“Write what you know!” is not only the most useless piece of fiction writing advice I ever received, but for decades it prevented me from writing anything at all.

Instead of writing what you know, let me show you what your readers really crave.  Something that, uniquely, only you can provide.

For years, even though I had masses of ideas circulating in my head, I never wrote anything, because I thought I didn’t know anything worth writing about.  Later when I did know stuff, it was so boring even I didn’t even want to read it.

The story that changed everything.

I’m a great fan of  It’s a writing platform where youngsters publish, comment, encourage, and critique each other’s stories.  Anyway, there was this one story about domestic abuse that was badly written, contained bad spelling, and had hopeless grammar.  The plot was pretty lame too, but I was immediately captivated.

The central character, by necessity, had one public persona and one private persona, which was intriguing enough, but the things that really drew me in were the emotions.  It was clear this young writer had personally experienced the difficult and horrific things her protagonist went through:  she knew what she was writing about.

As the story unfolded and eventually came to a stuttering standstill, we got to know a little bit more about the author herself.  It became clear she was still trapped in some of the difficulties her protagonist had left behind, and one day she too hoped to find the courage to escape, just like her heroine.

The story, however, was just a story.  The author had deliberately chosen a setting, characters, family members, protagonist and a villain that would in no way identify her, her situation, or anyone remotely connected to her.  The only things of the author that remained in the story were her emotions and experiences, and the story was perhaps all the more powerful because of that.

That young author on Wattpad taught me a valuable lesson that opened the floodgates of my own creativity.  Inadvertently, she had done what all good writers do: she wrote from her own emotional experience, about things she had known.

Don’t write what you know; write what you’ve known.
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Everyone has a story to tell, right?

True, but mostly it’s in a mundane setting with boring characters and a story line that winds and rambles until it makes some sort of sense to the protagonist, but not necessarily anyone else.

However, take the experiences you have known, the dilemmas you have struggled with, the hopes and fears you have faced, and the emotions you have experienced, put them into a story and you can create something special.

The best stories, the ones that grab us, affect us, and change us, are the ones that contain the heart and soul, and emotions, of the author:  where the author writes, in story form, what they have known.  In that sense, all stories are about the human condition, and all stories are autobiographical.

I hope that young author, who taught me a valuable lesson about my craft, did somehow find the courage to escape her situation.  Because, stories, if they contain real emotions and experiences, are powerful, and can change us.  I like to think that perhaps she was changed by her own stories.

Here is how you construct a compelling story.

  • Choose an interesting setting/time period/place/genre.
  • Populate the setting with a cast of memorable and intriguing characters.
  • Choose an exciting plot and decide how it will end.
  • Choose an emotional issue/problem from your life to be the overall theme of your story – this is how your protagonist(s) will change and develop emotionally over the course of the story.
  • Identify the exact opposite issues/problem from the main theme – this is how your antagonist(s) will change emotionally over the course of the story. I have found the books, “The Emotion Thesaurus” and “The Negative Trait Thesaurus,” both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, to be very useful at this point.
  • To make an interesting story, and enable you to explore the issue emotionally through your main character(s), you must prevent the plot progressing smoothly (and boringly) by exaggerating the obstacles and difficulties you have faced in relation to that issue. Then throw in a load of even more extreme, made up, obstacles for your protagonist(s) to overcome.  The obstacles should increase in difficulty as the story progresses, which creates the story.
  • Finally, steer your story to your chosen conclusion, which may or may not resemble the outcome you yourself had from the main issue/problem or may be an extreme version.

Suddenly you have a story that is not only unique to you and the emotional life experience you have known, but everyone wants to read it.  Why?  Because, regardless of everything that is made up (fake) about the story, the emotions and experiences are still real:  they feel real because you have known them, and readers connect with you for that reason.  You are still telling a human story, your story, just through different characters and in a different setting.

Okay, so it’s no where near as easy to do well as I make it sound, and Hemingway is probably closer to the truth: to write well you do need to bleed emotionally, because is can be a painful process as well as an exhilarating one.  The best writers can take an issue and open it up through fiction in a way that may be impossible through any other means.

So remember, to create a good story, don’t write what you know; write what you have known.

Happy (or at least productive) writing.  Nick.

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A Town Called Story

I’ve discovered a brilliant new TV programme which I am totally mad about.  It’s a scfi show by the name of, A Town Called Eureka, about this fictional American town populated entirely by scientific geniuses.

Before anyone says anything, yes, I know it was cancelled in series five in 2012, because it didn’t make “enough profit,” but I’m seeing it for the first time so let me enjoy it.

As scfi programmes go, it has more than it’s fair share of ‘rubber science’ [], all delivered with intense fervour and absolutely straight faces – the writers must have had fun making up all those pseudo scientific terms.

Whilst the premise is about super-smart people doing super-smart science, there are a few things that set this programme apart form others of its ilk:

  • Memorable and well crafted characters – all the main players are almost caricatures of themselves, but not quite.
  • The series does not take itself too seriously, e.g. the android deputy sheriff has a stupid grin on his face all the time and an annoyingly chirpy attitude.
  • The weekly storylines always concern themselves with the relationships between the different main characters, and the scientific storylines nearly always provide the barriers, stumbling blocks, and challenges that move the relationship stories along.  The result is that you really get to care about these characters and their bizarre lives.

This fantastic story telling and clever writing, which provides a TV equivalent of an intoxicating page turner.  I intend to track down the series writers and see what else they are working on.

I am also resolved to adding more character relationship storylines to my future novels, which are fed and powered by the main plot.  This will be difficult and I’ll need to tweak the plot lines to facilitate this, but I reckon that if I can resolve one relationship storyline every three to six chapters I will increase the appeal of my stories exponentially.

If you have experience of this kind of writing, please provide some details in the comments.

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Writing Workshop – Plotting the Plot

cartoonThis plotting method is the one I find most useful.  If you don’t like it that’s Ok, ignore me and go do your own thing – do whatever works for you.

The idea for a novel can start with a character, story idea, a concept, a question, a what if?  Or a story world.  We will start with the plot, because we have to start somewhere.  If you’ve already started with another element of the story don’t worry, all these workshops are interchangeable and can be done in almost any order.

The primary function of a fiction writer is to tell a story.  At the very minimum you need a three line plot.  This consists of

  • A Premise – what is the story about.
  • Complication(s) – (But) what difficulties do the characters have to overcome and how do they overcome these complications
  • A Climax – How your characters over the complications and resolve the story.

How your character(s) overcome the complications of the plot forms the main body of your story.  Without complications, objections, and hurdles for your characters to overcome, your story will fall flat, because all stories are about how humans overcome conflict.  Stories are so hard-wired into human nature, that even stories we think are about something else are ultimately about humans.

In fact, the more difficult you make it for your characters, the more their personalities will be exposed and the more interesting your story will become.  Plotting is really all about storytelling and storytelling is all about conflict.

For instance:  a Princess is born, grows up, meets the Prince of her dreams, gets married and lives happily ever after is not a very interesting story (unless you are three years old).  A Princess grows up overcoming the eccentricities of her parents, meets the Prince of her dreams who turns out to be a monster, but the Princesses’ pure love helps the Princes overcome his Monstrous traits – Beauty and the Beast – is more interesting.  Add that the two families are monstrous and compare that against the forbidden pure love of the prince and princess and you have Romeo and Juliet, turn pure love into obsession and you have Twilight. It’s all about what your characters have to overcome and how they go about it that makes your story interesting.

In Gaia’s Brood, the three line plot is:

  • A girl goes on a quest to discover how her mother died.
  • But, hidden forces conspire against her quest.
  • Why these complications arise is answered in an unexpected confrontation with the story villains, creating the climax of the story.

In Helium3 the plot lines are:

  • A boy wishes to pursue his dream of racing space sleds.
  • But, he is a chronic outsider and the system is fixed against him.
  • A confrontation with injustice and the boy’s nemesis form the climax of the story.

How may complications can you have?  One.  Keep it simple, make your story about one overriding issue, one theme, and one only.  If you find you have more than one, try to split them out into separate plots – now you have two stories and you are on your way to a series.

At this stage concentrate on the overall picture, there will be plenty of time for detail later in your story arcs, sub-plots, character journeys, and story beats, all of which will be covered in future workshops.  For now, keep playing with your three line plot until you have something that grabs you or intrigues you, it’s not easy, but it pay dividends in the end:  if the plot grabs you, it will grab your readers too.

Plotting Exercises:  Try sketching out a couple of simple, three line, plots each day:  A Premise, A Complication, and A Climax.  The more you practice plot writing the easier it becomes, and sooner or later you are going to hit on that original plot that you cannot get out of your head and which turns into your next story. Let me know how you get on and please share any questions, ideas or your own process in the comments.

Tip:  If you have difficulty separating your characters from the plot, (I always seem to let the characters get in the way, which produces a kind of writer’s block when it comes to plot writing), describe the story in basic fairytale stereotypes: desperate king tries to marry off his daughter to a rich prince, but the prince is a monster, however, love conquers all and the monster is tamed by the princesses love – beauty and the beast.  Or, a lonely princess and a cursed prince fall for each other, but their love turns into obsession which threatens to destroy both of them and lead to war, however love overcomes the impossible divide and war is averted – Twilight (note that being a vampire is not part of the plot outline, but a consequence of a character trait).  Well it works for me.

Keep writing, Nick.

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A Steampunk Martial Art – Girardoni Kata

Parkour Gun KataSince posting my article on the Girardoni gun, ‘Steampunk Warfare – The Real Deal’, I find myself inventing a whole new martial art to accommodate the weapon.

As a writer, I love the way a simple decision can drive the development of a whole story world. In this case it is the adoption of a certain gun mechanism, but it could equally be a political, institutional, religious, technological, hierarchical or social idea, just as our response to these things change the real world around us.

A story world must hang together logically for the whole thing to feel real to the reader. To give your story an ‘other-worldy’ feel, just turn a social norm on its head and follow the logical consequences of that decision.

The other day, I took the family to see the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, UK. The Mary Rose is a Tudor warship built on the cusp of a military revolution – the introduction of cannons. She was originally designed in 1510 as a floating castle, from which bowmen and musketeers could help in the boarding and capture of enemy ships. She was refitted in 1536 with heavy cannon as a floating gun platform. The refit was only partially successful: she was so top heavy she could not turn with her gun ports open, because she leaned over so far they were under water. She tried the maneuver in battle in 1545 and promptly sank.

The museum clearly shows how the introduction of new weaponry changed the entire nature of offensive and defensive warfare during the ship’s lifetime. I highly recommend visiting the Mary Rose museum if you ever get the opportunity, it the best museum I have ever been to – 19,000 artifacts and everyone original.

I reckon, if the Girardoni gun system had continued in use, it would only have been a matter of time before a martial art was invented to accommodate the continuous reloading and firing of two Girardoni pistols used simultaneously.

I have researched the art of Gun Kata, invented for the film Equilibrium – but the moves mainly revolve around visually impressive, but totally impractical, stances for the camera. I have also researched Gun Fu, invented by the Asian cinema as a visually entertaining alternative to kung fu action films. Neither of these ‘disciplines’ serve any practical purpose other than to visually entertain – which is fine, we are all in the entertainment business, but they are particularly difficult to transpose into prose.

To satisfy literary demands, and still achieve the cool feel I’m after, I have had to invent my own martial art with which to populate my new novel, Coggler’s Brood.  This is a new departure from the weapons of Gaia’s Brood, and a fitting extension of the story world, so I am particularly excited.  I have called this new martial art, Girardoni Kata, a Steampunk Martial Art.

Based around Gun Kata, the moves are all practical ways in which to continuously reload, cock, and fire, two Girardoni pistols simultaneously, while taking on a large number of opponents in close quarter fighting.

Here are two of the basic moves:

A standing six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen or sixteen point star, where the gun wielder aims and fires toward opposite points of the star, whilst rotating either clockwise or anticlockwise.  The practitioner reloads the breach block with parts of their upper body, killing their opponents with deadly accuracy.

A crouching six or eight point double-rate-of-fire star, where the gun wielder fires in a predetermined pattern, without accurate aiming, whilst rotating in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction.  The practitioner reloads the breach block with parts of their lower body, arms, and legs.  The objective here is to fire as fast a possible to create such a hail of bullets that the enemy are cut down and killed as they fall through the deadly curtain of lead.

All I need now is for some kind soul to make up a pair of mirrored Girardoni pistols with working breaches and cocking hammers, complete with gun holsters, so I can practice  my Girardoni Kata moves – I’m just not a good tinkerer, except with words.

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Writing Workshop – The MacGuffin

The MacGuffin is a device use by script writers, particularly in action and adventure films, to advance the action and maintain the audiences interest.

The term coined was by Alfred Hitchcock. He generally used it as a device to hold together the first part of his film. What is it? Anything which all the characters are interested in obtaining. In Psycho the MacGuffin is the $40,000 which has been stolen. The pursuit of this money provides the motivation which holds all the characters together in the first part of the film without giving away the whole plot. Hitchcock generally only used it as a device to hold together the first act. Ultimately, Hitchcock said the MacGuffin is just not important ‘It is nothing.’ Who for instance remembers the $40,000 in Psycho?

The Coen brother always use the same MacGaffin in each of their films: money, and it is always a red-herring. In their film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ which is one of my all time favourite movies, three convicts break out of prison to retrieve a large stash of money. We learn later that the money was a hoax, but it keeps the film moving and gives everyone a purpose until the true objective is revealed.

In the film Safe, which I watched last night, the MacGuffin is a little girl who knows something. The protagonist and most of the Antagonists have no idea why the girl is important or what secret she knows, all they know is that their enemies are pulling out all the stops to find her, so she becomes important to them too.  Not until three-quarters of the way through the film do they discover what the chase, and the rising body count, is all about.  A clever script, I thought, and a theme I would like to use in a future story.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas also use the MacGuffin as a device in their films.  In the original Star Wars movie, Lucas says R2D2 was the MacGuffin, which he used to hold the first act together in the classic Hitchcock way.  Spielberg, on the other hand, has a different view of the MacGuffin. For him, the MacGuffin must always be the ultimate prize.  Here the device is used to motivate the characters throughout the whole film.  The best examples are from the Indians Jones Series: in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the MacGuffin is the Ark of the Covenant; In The Temple Of Doom, the holy stones; In The Last Crusade, it is the Holy Grail; In the Crystal Skull it is the skull. In fact, Spielberg likes the MacGuffin technique so much he is happy to have more than one. Not only will he have an overall MacGuffin, but he will have minor MacGuffins in each act of the film.

A MacGuffin is normally an object, but could be a person, that all the characters are interested in and that propels the action forwards. It could be the main objective of the protagonist and antagonist which drives the action throughout the entire film. It could be a step on the way to the main objective or it could be totally unrelated to the main objective and be completely forgotten by the end of the film. It’s purpose is solely to provide focus and move the action along. It’s a technique which readily transposes to writing.

In Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows you could say that the Horuxes and the Hallows are MacGuffins. They provide the necessary focus and motivation to propel the action forwards.  In my book Gaia’s Brood, the MacGuffin is Eve Swift’s journal.

A MacGuffin can also be a useful fix if you are editing and you realise your story just doesn’t hang together. Is there an object/person already in the story which can be turned into a MacGuffin (even if it is a complete red-herring) or can you introduce one. Look for ‘shotgun’ objects. By that I mean have you focused on an object in a part of the story but not used it – like the proverbial shotgun hanging behind the bar in a western: if it is shown it must be used by the end of the film, but nothing says you need to reserve it for the end of the story. If the pursuit or desire of the object will hold together the first act, by all means use it as a MacGuffin, secure in the knowledge that you are following in the footsteps of the greats.

So when you are next planning your adventure or action story, consider whether you have a MacGuffin or whether you need one. How many MacGuffins do you need? One overall object to provide a focus for the entire story or several steps along the way, or both. How about one to propel a (sub) story along, or maybe a total red-herring?

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Writing Workshop – The distracting Steampunk Gadget

Isn’t this the most awesome steampunk gadget ever?  I have no idea what it is, but that’s half the beauty – my imagination can run riot.

Let’s face it, some steampunk gizmos are fabulous, and beautiful, and just desperately need to feature in that steampunk novel you are writing.  Don’t do it; resist the temptation.

Warning:  Include a wealth of information about a cornucopia of steampunk inventions and you kill your story.

There are rules and conventions to storytelling.  Yes, we need to push the boundaries, but push them beyond what your audience can bear and you lose them.

In film making there is a foreshadowing rule which cannot be pushed too far, called the ‘Proverbial Shotgun Technique.’  Audiences and readers are so familiar with this technique that omitting it becomes as big an error as over using it and in some steampunk novels I have read, it is definitely overused.

The shotgun technique is best illustrated by reference to the cowboy western film where it originated..  The camera zooms in from a general view of the bar to highlight a shotgun hung on the wall behind the barman.  The existence of this weapon has now been raised in the viewer’s consciousness.  Not using the shotgun to resolve a plot conflict, by the end of the film, is to leave the audience feeling deprived.

On the other hand, if a shotgun is suddenly produced to resolve a critical plot-line, without having been foreshadowed first, viewers/readers may feel cheated, because they never had the opportunity to anticipate this scene (technically called a ‘deus ex-machina’, ‘God out of the machine’: a cheep story device introduced to rescue a failing plot line).  So if your character is suddenly going to win a fight by producing, a spring loaded knife from up their sleeve, you had better have introduced at some earlier part of the story.

Similarly, if you explain in fine details the workings of say a steam driven car or the beautiful device featured at the top of this article – no, I have no idea what it is, but isn’t it fantastic – that device then has to play some part in the plot line of your story.

There are some nerds and geeks who will want to immerse themselves in detailed descriptions of how your story world works, but save that for your website, because most readers want a character driven plot and an exciting story.

Think of your gadgets and gismos as characters in your story:  the stranger walking past the window will receive only a passing description, whereas a character who drives the plot is described in a lot more detail.

If you are writing a thriller/crime/mystery, where your reader knows the villain is killed, you could highlighting a gun, a knife, and a rock.  This will increase the anticipation as the reader tries to work out which weapon is used.

Except in the above scenario, it is best not to use the shotgun technique to create red-herrings.  For that, it is better to use a MacGuffin, but more about that in a later post.

In short:  If you show it, use it. If you have used it already, but not shown it, edit it in earlier.Tweet this!

Steampunk Dystopian Adventure – the countdown begins

Gaia's Brood
Gaia’s Brood

A week ago, I received back the manuscript for Gaia’s Brood from my editor and I have now completed the final edit.

I’ve spent the last few days formatting the master document for ebook and paperback publishing – it is all very exciting.

All I need to do now is load up the manuscript for the pre-launch publicity and kick off the pre-launch marketing.

Official publication date is the 25th April 2015

Here’s the marketing strategy I have decided to pursue:

  • Two weeks prior to the publishing date, offer free pre-launch ebook copies in return for publication day Amazon reviews.  The sign-up forms, with auto email marketing reminders, are already prepared on MailChimp and I have loaded them onto the Free Stuff page of this website. You can sign up here for your free pre-publication copy of Gaia’s Brood.
  • For the first two weeks after publication offer the ebook at $1.99 (not using Amazon KPD), and offer the paperback at cost price.
  • Two weeks after launch, offer the ebook and paperback for the full price of $4.49.
  • During the whole six week period, upload all the pre-prepared website articles, promote the book trailer video – you can view on the right it at the top of this page, and the 50% associate deal.

And if none of that shifts a stack of books, carry on writing the sequel, Coggler’s Brood and try again.

Wish me luck.


The #DearMe trending on Twitter caught my attention the other day.  This was part of Women’s Day, where women wrote letters of advice to their younger selves.

This got me thinking, what advice would I give to my younger writerly self?

1.  Don’t let everyone tell you that bad writing and atrocious spelling means you cannot write.  Dyslexia may be a problem, but computers will largely get you over these hurdles (cannot remember the last time I wrote anything, other than a card, by hand).

2.  Learning to tell a good story is never wasted, and is the hardest thing about fiction writing.

3.  Take up writing as a serious hobby much earlier – you are good at it.

4.  Read only those books / article on writing that make a real difference (I’ll send you a reading list through the time machine).

5.  Good characters are the key to creating great writing.

6.  Practice writing lots – one day it will save your life.

7.  Don’t go to the 2005 Winchester Writing Conference, you were nearly too late for that important thing.  I know it was good, but save it for another year.  What were you thinking?

8.  The internet will change everything.  Self publishing will no longer be just a vanity project, but a valid career move, where success depends not on luck, but on hard work.  Get on the band-wagon early.

9.  Outsource what you cannot do yourself.

10.  Twitter is fantastic, why did you ignore it for so long?

11.  Don’t bother with Facebook, you don’t ‘get’ it.

12.  Love Steampunk.  I know it sounds geeky and they dress weird, but it’s the story world and audience you are craving.

So that is twelve things I would have liked to hear when I was just starting out as a writer.  What about you? What advice would you give to your writerly self? #DearWriterlyMe.

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Writing Workshop – Believable Heroes and Villains

The worst and best of humanity is yet to come.

1a7ac1964593d93334899fc5b6fc9516Today, is International Holocaust Memorial day—70 years since the NAZI concentration camp of Auschwitz was liberated.  It reminds us all of the depths to which human depravity can plunge, but it also reminds us of the great sacrifices some people will make for others—the best of humanity.

How as writers do we capture this in our characters?  The easy answer is to portray our protagonists as the best of humanity and our villains as the worst, but that results in flat, two-dimensional characters, in which no one, except younger children, are interested.

The reality, is that everyone has the ability within themselves to both plumb the depths of humanity and to soar to the heights.  The film Schindler’s List is a great example of the internal conflict within human nature.  Here is a man who does good things for bad reasons—this is the sort of character that keeps our readers glued to the text, furiously turning pages.

The twentieth century was probably the worst yet in terms of human depravity—mainly as a result of despotic atheistic regimes killing their own people in ever larger numbers.  Some may view that last statement as controversial, but the facts speak for themselves.

As our technical ability to easily kill large numbers advances, I believe that even more shocking atrocities will be committed in future centuries—though I hope and pray I am wrong.  The worst and best of humanity is yet to come (Nick Travers 2015).  This is a statement I make in the forward of the novel I am currently working on, ‘Coggler’s Brood,’ because I want to explore some of these themes in the story.

Do you think any of those despots in the twentieth century believed they were evil, or the villain of the plot?  Most, maybe all, sincerely thought they were making their society, and the world, a better place.  They alone were the courageous souls taking the necessary decisions others flinched away from.  In their eyes, and the narrative of their lives (more about this later), they were the heroes.

Every villain should be the hero of their own story; every hero should fear they are the villain.

As writers we are students of human nature.  We know every real person is conflicted, and those who are not, because of mental health or personality disorders, are in conflict with society.  We know that no one is purely good or purely evil; we know that every story, no matter how fanciful, zany, comic or alien, is really about the human condition.  Conflict is not just the nature of story, it is the nature of human beings.

This is why great writers often use religious or philosophical themes in their writings, because these disciplines concern themselves with trying to resolve the essential conflict at heart of each human experience.

To be real and multi-faceted, our characters need to reflect these internal conflicts, not just deal with the plot conflicts.  This means we need to know our characters inside out.  We need to know what motivates them and what conflicts they carry inside themselves.  Make every villain the hero of their own story.  To do this, of course, we need to plot out our villain’s story in the same way we plot out our protagonist’s story.  We always say to give our characters flaws, but how about making part of the protagonist’s conflict a nagging doubt that they are the villain, and their actions are forcing others into doing bad things—if they stop, perhaps the bad things would stop too or have another character introduce this doubt.

A fundamental facet of human nature is that we all construct narratives of our own lives.  When something major comes along in our lives, we re-write the narrative to fit the events.  We might say it was ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ or ‘that it was meant to be’, because we can clearly see how every twist and turn of our lives has led to making us the person we are today.  However, before the event, it is highly unlikely this featured in our future narrative.

Just as every real person has a narrative of their lives so every character in our plot too has a narrative.  To make our characters, whether hero, villain, or side character, real, we need to know and explore the life narrative of each one.  Reading enables us to explore all sorts of conflicts, situations, and solutions.  In a good book we can explore the big themes of life.  As writers, we owe it to our readers not to duck the big issues of life or present flat characters who have no internal conflicts of their own.  In our stories, we can, to a greater or lesser extent, explore the true nature of human existence.

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A Dystopian steampunk Author

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