Thursday, 25 October 2012

3. How to Load a Beretta M9

This is an example of the need for research. Whatever you think you know, if you’re not sure of your facts, you’ll need to perform research as your readers might (and probably will) know more than you.

Guns feature in the plot of “The Blue Angels”. While those guns remained in the hands of the story’s bad guys, Frank Quinn and Patrick McGuigan, there wasn’t any real need to say much about them (from the point of view of the plot’s hero, “Milton Styles”, they were simply guns). Mention is made of a silencer but, apart from that, extra details were not required. My problems began when Milton gets hold of one in a later chapter (he’s an ordinary, white-collar Englishman who has never seen a real gun, let alone handled one).

In particular, I wanted to write a scene that takes places Lynda’s car (Lynda is Milton’s friend and lover). In this scene, Lynda would be at the wheel of her stationery car, with Milton sitting beside her. She has just used the gun but now she needs to get rid of it quickly as Frank Quinn is in pursuit on foot. She achieves this by thrusting the gun into Milton’s hand. As soon as it’s in his possession, Milton goes to pieces. He’s afraid to point it anywhere for fear of shooting himself, or Lynda, or some vital part of the car. He knows that guns generally have safety catches but has no idea how they work. We all know that a gun may be fired by squeezing the trigger, but can it also be fired accidentally by dropping it (for example)? To answer these questions, the gun had to move from the abstract into the concrete: it had to become a particular type of gun.

Research pointed me toward a Beretta M9. From what I could ascertain, it is - or was - a commonly used weapon within the US military (Frank Quinn is American) and can be made to work through a silencer, even if a true connoisseur might not choose to do so. I’m sure that there will be readers who will take issue with my choice, but it is reasonable for a man who is employed by a wealthy individual who cares about results but not details. Having established the make and model of gun in question, I was able to compile copious notes (in a series of OneNote pages) that detailed the gun’s history, usage, appearance etc. I also found that I had to research the history of safety catches in general, in order to appreciate the different types available and, in particular, the type offered with the Beretta. With this information, I could allow Lynda to have a limited knowledge of firearms in general, which she could use to guide and reassure Milton as he sought the gun’s safety switch. For his part, Milton could describe the gun, either to himself or to Lynda, in order to reassure himself before flicking the switch and stowing the gun into the glovebox with the reasonable expectation that it wouldn’t go off. Crucially, the research material provided the knowledge required to write about the gun confidently, realistically and in a consistent way. Also, if I refer to it later, I can go back to my research material and make sure I get things right.

And now, as promised, instructions on how to load a Beretta M9 (Even these were enlightening, as they told me how many rounds the gun can take, and what calibre they are). I did wonder if publishing this detail might be irresponsible, but decided, in the end, that anyone who actually has a Beretta M9 is likely to know how to load it!

1.      Load the magazine. Place one 9 mm bullet at a time onto the top opening of the magazine. Push and simultaneously slide the bullet back against the magazine wall. Repeat until all 15 rounds are loaded into the magazine.
2.      Engage the safety switch located on the top-left of the M9, just near the rear sight. Flip the switch down to cover the red dot. The covered red dot indicates that the safety is on.
3.      Slide the magazine into the magazine well (pistol grip bottom). When you hear a click, the magazine is locked into the weapon.
4.      Grasp the serrated area of the slide, then pull it to the rear and release. This action chambers a round.
5.      Disengage the safety switch by flipping it back up, revealing the red dot. You're now ready to fire the weapon.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

2. Getting Started


The writing of “The Marguerite Effect” was, in many ways, a chaotic experience. It doesn’t show now because the finished product is actually the ninth major version. The chaos made the writing process both fun and deeply frustrating and I vowed to do it differently the next time. Without a plan I had no plot line to follow and no idea what was going to happen - even on the next page. In many ways, it was more like reading a book than writing one. My creative writing course notes and teaching literature suggested different methods of working, and several established authors were kind enough to contribute insights on their own practices, but I think it was too soon for me: I had to make the mistakes to realise the wisdom in their words. It’s important to remember at this point that there is no “right way” to write a book. I’m simply letting you know what happened during the writing of my first novel and how I responded to these challenges to facilitate the second. Nothing is set in stone, but I haven’t made any real changes to how I work for six months or more now, so it looks as though I may have arrived at my own “optimal” solution.
Below is a summary of how I work. If you’re struggling to get started, or to stay focussed, try these methods and adapt them to you. They’re all pretty loose and don’t require any special software but, for the record, I use Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft OneNote and will refer to them. Each can be replaced with other software and some can be replaced with paper-based solutions as you wish. “Other software packages are available” as they say on the BBC.

Write the Synopsis First

By the time I began writing “The Blue Angels”, I had learned my lesson about writing without a plan, so I wrote the synopsis first. In this case, the synopsis was a bunch of bullet points, in (broadly) chronological order that together expressed the turning points of the story. Each bullet point can be a sentence or a paragraph and need not be written in well-formed language. The important thing is that each moves the story on in some way by expression an action. Here is a typical example from my OneNote notebook:
Hayle forces Milton to appear with him as "Plato" in a televised press conference, threatening Lynda's life if he doesn't go along with it.
Keep on adding bullet points until you have the outline of your plot. This will guide you when you feel lost or temporarily overwhelmed.

Revisit Your Synopsis for Character Development

Once the plot outline is complete, you will have what is effectively a child’s version of your story. I say a child’s version, as each part of the plot may well lack any nod to character motivation. “A does this. A does that. B does something to A” Now is the time to ask yourself why these things happen. Revisit your synopsis and ask yourself questions: Why would A do this? Could it happen? What would be necessary for it to happen? What would the effects of it be and do they chime with the plot points further down? How would A have to be feeling in order to do this and how would it make B feel? By asking these questions and expanding your bullet points with thoughts as to the answers, you will address several fundamental issues. For one, you will start to consider your character’s personalities. You will also start to think more about the setting and the backdrop to the story. You will probably want to make a note of your characters’ personality traits, handedness, appearance etc. (again, I use OneNote) so that motivations and descriptions are consistent throughout the plot. You might be surprised how much the plot outline changes at this stage but that’s fine: it’s all a part of the process. It’s far better to have to make big changes now when you have perhaps 3,000 words rather than later, when you have 83,000.

Revisit Your Synopsis for Continuity

Now that you know what happens and why, you’ll also want to think about where it happens, when it happens, and how long it all takes. If you don’t consider these dimensions, you might find your characters live in a world of permanent daylight, or take a day to walk across the room. These are extreme mistakes, but are surprisingly easy to commit. At this stage, I find it useful to annotate the bullet points with location, start date/time and end date/time. Again, the plot may change at this stage, but I find that, by now, things will be much more stable.

[Day 6, 14:00CDT to 15:00CDT, Church compound, Texas] Hayle forces Milton to appear with him as "Plato" in a televised press conference, threatening Lynda's life if he doesn't go along with it.

Model Your Characters, Locations and Equipment

By now your characters will be well defined, at least in terms of their motivations, but what do they look like? How do they move? Are they left-handed, musical etc. What brought them to where they are?
These questions may appear daunting, but it’s worth taking a little effort here for the sake of continuity and to help you get inside your character’s heads, which is vital for convincing dialogue and flow. By a “little effort” I mean, “as much as is necessary at this stage”. Don’t feel that you have to write full CVs for everyone, and remember that not everything you decide upon here needs to end up in your story: it’s there to inform you, the author. How much of it is given to the reader, and how quickly, is up to you. I use OneNote to create a page for each character and location used, and hyperlink them together to establish relationships. Here is an example that I created for “Milton Styles” who is the main character of the “The Blue Angels”.

·         Hero
·         Aged 38
·         Widower of Cathy
·         Father of Stacey (deceased)
·         Disafter member
·         Friend and lover of Lynda
·         Lives in Croverbridge
·         6'2"

That was all I needed to get started. Each of the links leads to a separate page which describes the character, location or item of equipment as appropriate. As I write, I may throw in an eye colour, or handedness. If so, I should add it here, so that I can remember what I wrote and keep it consistent later. I also created a page for a “Beretta M9”, which is a pistol that appears in the story. I know a lot about people, but very little about guns, so for that “character” I did a lot of research and created a couple of pages with pictures and technical details so that I could write about it accurately and realistically.


If your story concerns themes, locations or items etc. with which you are unfamiliar, then research them. The internet is obviously a great resource for this but it’s only one, and some of the “facts” reported on it may not be totally unreliable. It’s up to you how thorough to be, but the more you learn, the more confident you will be and the more detailed and realistic your prose will be. It’s unlikely that you will perform all of your research before you write a word (I’m always too impatient to start) but that’s OK: you can do it parallel, or as a break from writing every now and then.

Write Your First Draft

Now all of your plot points have cause and effect, place, time and duration. You understand your characters and why they act the way they do. You feel confident that you can refer in a realistic way to the locations and equipment used, even if you might have to top-up as you go. All that remains now is for you to flesh out the bones and to write your first draft. Don’t be afraid to revisit your synopsis during the writing process as you may still have fresh ideas but beware: if you don’t knuckle down you might find that you never finish! If you find that the rate of change exceeds the rate of progress, then you probably need more work on your synopsis. Stop what you’re doing and revisit it. The most important thing here is to finish your first draft. Once you have that, you will have done most of the hard creative work. You will need to redraft and perform some rework but, if you follow the hints above, your redrafts will probably more akin to wallpapering or installing a nice new rug than to building an extension. As a result, you will be a happier, less stressed author. Well, that’s my experience anyway.

Coming soon: "How to Load a Beretta M9" and "Keeping Track of Progress" #mixedbag J

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

1. What's It All About?

What's it all about?

First, some introductions. I'm Mark and I'm a writer. In 2007 I finally gained sufficient confidence to sign up for a Creative Writing course with the Open University and I haven't looked back since. During 2008, I enrolled on a second course and then, in 2009, I started to write seriously. I started with short stories, some of which are available on Kindle ("True Colours - A Collection of Short Fiction") and then, in 2010, a new short story began to morph into a novel. This became "The Marguerite Effect". Being a first novel, "Marguerite" as I call it, underwent a difficult birth. Don't get me wrong - I'm proud of it - it just didn't come easily.In fact, by the time I had written and re-written it, two years of my life had slipped under the bridge and I was on version 9. Believe me, my wife earned her acknowledgment!

When the dust had settled, and I finally had time to develop my new idea ("The Blue Angels") I decided that things would be different. Over the two year gestation of "Marguerite" I had formulated methods and developed some simple tools that would help me to write my next novel more quickly. In this blog I hope to help (and be helped by) others like me by sharing ideas on the writing process and how to grab it by the throat. I also plan to share some of the interesting and plain odd things that I have discovered during my research for "The Blue Angels". It would be great if some of you could join me for the ride!

More soon,