Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Graphic Design Shenanigans

I’ve been caught up with various graphic design projects lately, which has eaten into my writing time a little. The creative tables are constantly turning between text and visuals, but that’s just how I roll. I wanted to share something I’ve been working on, a logo design featuring custom-made artwork and lettering.

This logo was so much fun to make, and I’m quite happy with how it turned out. I love anything that has a dash of tongue-in-cheek. The chicken is from a small design project at my day job. Rather than let my disgruntled chicken go to waste I figured I’d showcase it.

I listened to a playlist of mellow music while making this. It seems that movie soundtracks and smooth beats work well with my visual-creative half. Choice tracks include:

Flight, by Lycoriscoris. Beautiful ambient beats.
Princess Margaret, by Lorne Balfe and Rupert Gregson-Williams (from TV show The Crown)
Fireisland, by Aly & Fila and Solarstone, from Quiet Storm. I also love the Uplifting Mix of this track, which you can find here.

I am available for freelance work right now, so drop me a line if you need a logo or business card design, or a book cover!

Podcast recommendation: We’re Alive

Trawling through the iTunes podcast library, I stumbled upon an audio drama called We’re Alive – A Story of Survival, by Wayland Productions. It’s a zombie podcast, but before you run for the hills, hear me out. It starts off as you might expect, but it quickly becomes clear that they’re doing something a little different with the zombie post-apocalypse. For starters, it’s done in the style of a fully realised radio drama. It has an ensemble cast of voice actors and high-quality sound effects. There’s also a clever score and custom artwork for each chapter.

There are 48 chapters overall, so plenty to keep podcast fans happy. Plus Wayland Productions are still active, with a new podcast Goldrush.  Generally chapters are split into three or four parts, each part running from under ten minutes to around thirty minutes, which makes it easy to squeeze in on a lunch break, a car journey, a walk, or even just before bed.

The pros:

  • The sound effects are brilliant. Who would have thought that something that’s usually so visual—walking, rotting corpses—could be way scarier when only in audio. And these zombies aren’t the shambling, shuffling dunderheads you see in a lot of other venues. Think 28 Days Later undead who can sprint. Listening with headphones is absolutely the way to go—when you first hear the rapid thump-thump-thump of the monsters running at you, the sound growing louder and louder in your ears, it’s terrifying.
  • Like I said above, they’re doing something different with the zombies. It was one of the main things that kept me intrigued all the way through.
  • Apart from a couple of minor niggles (see below), the voice acting is fantastic and high quality.
  • The score is also very good, building tension or relief at the right moments. I can only bring to mind one instance where I felt the background atmospheric music was out of place.

The cons:

  • Sometimes the dialogue can be hokey. There are a number of cliches that could have been avoided, and at one point a character even says (narrating) that she goes on “an emotional rollercoaster”. That old chestnut. But the podcast is otherwise quite slick and while it jarred for a moment, it didn’t put me off.
  • Once in a while the line delivery is slightly awkward, and you can tell that the actors are reading from scripts. It’s never so bad that I wanted to stop listening, and generally they do an excellent job. It’s just the odd line.

If you don’t usually go for horror or zombies in particular but have always wanted to try some, this might be a good entry point. Its format sets it apart from many other horror stories out there. Plus, if it’s the blood and guts visuals you tend to shy away from, you don’t have to worry about seeing any of it here—only the squishy sounds coming from all directions. 🙂

You can find We’re Alive on TumblrTwitterYouTube and Facebook, too.

Dialogue and Why Not to Forget It

I forget about entertaining dialogue all the time and when I get to the end of a story I often feel that the characters sound flat. I get so tangled up in the many other elements of a story, like the plot and the world-building. It’s another one of those million things I’m still working hard to improve in my writing. When we write we convince ourselves we’re writing snappy dialogue because the dialogue is fast-paced, but it needs more than just pace. It needs to distinguish character, show character ticks and traits, reveal their attitudes and relationship dynamics.

Dialogue also has to sound real and feel organic, which can be tricky to pull off. The standard writing advice is to go out and listen to how people speak to each other, and pay attention to the ebb and flow of your own conversations. Doing is the best kind of research.

There was an excellent article by writer Kameron Hurley a few years ago about writing character banter, and it’s worth bookmarking: Who Cares? On the Importance of Banter and Character-Driven Narrative. Kameron says:

When I went back and looked at my own writing, I realized I was spending all my time trying to be a Serious Writer, and sorely neglecting all the humor and snark that makes life itself bearable. It was the revelation that maybe I should be spending more time figuring out snarky dialogue and fight scenes that eventually led me to write God’s War the way I did.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in something else – worldbuilding, or plot – that we forget about the people, and we forget that the world exists to make the people the way they are and the plot only exists because the characters move it.

Also, I love that Dragon Age: Origins artwork has been used in the post, because Alistair and Morrigan are wonderful examples of good character banter. Actually, I love all of the questing dialogue in DA:O.

A Sizeable Cool Link Roundup

Top 10 Gadgets From Iain M. Banks’ Culture Universe – I’m a massive Iain M. Banks fan, particularly his Culture sci-fi novels. This list breaks down some of the cool technology that exists in his storyverse, ranging from switching off pain to using knife missiles (yes, as cool as it sounds).

Why Nikola Tesla Was the Greatest Geek That Ever Lived – This was posted on The Oatmeal a few years ago, but it is still wonderful and hilarious and lovely.

When Sci-Fi Crime-Prevention Tactics Aren’t Actually That Far-Fetched – how likely is RoboCop? According to this article, fairly likely. 

“We’re now producing airborne drones that have the automated intellectual ability where they are able to pick out a terrorist and make a decision whether to kill them or not.”

NASA’s Sci-Fi Vision: Robots Could Help Humanity Mine Asteroids – from Universe Today. More sci-fi future nerdery, but an exciting prospect. So if Armageddon really does happen like in the movie, we won’t have to send Bruce Willis up there to blow it up. That’s a relief. I’m pretty sure he would insist on wearing a dressing gown.

And here’s a great website called Urban Geofiction where people create maps of fictional cities and countries. From their site: 

But they all have in common that they do not strive to create fantastic worlds with its own physical and natural laws like Tolkien did, for example. Their aim is to imagine new combinations of all variables that affect our daily (urban) life on this planet in a spatial way. 

There are many possibilities for stories here.

Lady Froggy Steampunk Gatling Gun for Dainty Death Dealing – I really want one of these. So deadly and cute! This is the James Bond tech of the steampunk 19th Century.

Considering Theme and Motif, by James Broomfield at the Storyslingers (old) blog. The blog has since moved and while it’s no longer updated you can read the past entries here. http://storyslingers.wordpress.com Here is an excerpt from James’s post:

Theme exists outside of narrative, characters, genre, time periods and language. It may never be directly stated in the story, it may only ever exist between the lines.

Your Age On Other Worlds – This is just plain fun. Fill in your birthdate and the script will calculate your age on the different planets in our solar system. Does this mean I can now tell people “I’m 0.23 on Neptune” when they ask me how old I am?

[Publication] The Machinists’ Boy | YA Sci-Fi | 4,200 words

I have a short YA story called The Machinists’ Boy out in Youth Imagination Magazine, issue 39. It’s free to read online. I’m so thrilled that one of my stories is in such great hands!

Title: The Machinists’ Boy
Author: Jennifer K. Oliver
Word Count: 4,200 words.
Publication: Youth Imagination Magazine
Summary: YA science fiction horror. Two young boys crash land on a wasteland planet, only to find they are not alone.

Cailan’s mothers were dead on the flight deck, but Sum was alive in the hull, and that was something. The ship had shut most of itself down to conserve power, leaving only enough for basic systems and the faint, rhythmic surge of pressure waves logging leaks and cracks like a struggling heartbeat.

Many moons ago I workshopped this story at two venues: Storyslingers writing group and The OWW. Thank you to everyone who provided critiques of earlier drafts. They were all extremely helpful. Find more of my published stories on my Fiction page.

[Game] Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that’s so visually stunning that I sometimes find myself forgetting to quest or follow my next objective. The scenery and soundtrack together are breathtaking and entirely distracting. Not to mention all the interesting mechanical beasts that stalk the landscape. I can’t count the times I’ve been following a quest only to get tangled up in hunting and discovering new areas. This is not a bad thing.

Nothing is wasted in this game. Even the rather puny Striders provide you with valuable materials you can use for crafting or simply selling for metal shards (the in-game currency). The beasts don’t always react how you think they will, either – often you might run into a herd and rather than fight you they will gallop away, startled.

Things I particularly love:

Non-linear, open world gameplay. This is one of the main reasons Skyrim is my soul game – you can spend hours running and hunting and climbing, if you so wish. But there are still plenty of big, juicy quests to get into, when you’re ready.

The machines are cool. The idea (for those who haven’t played this) is that animal-like machines were living among humans peacefully, but something called the Derangement has happened and they are now beginning to act more aggressively and even attack humans. Aloy has to figure out not only her own origins, but also why the machines have turned, and why the mysterious cult Eclipse is after her.

Speaking of the machines, it’s funny that I blogged recently about a Final Fantasy XIII, a game I completed a few years ago. The beasts in HZD are vaguely reminiscent of FF creatures, often mechanical with elaborate designs.

Aloy’s story is bittersweet and as the POV character you grow to respect and care about what happens to her. She is quite a tragic figure and her personal story unfolds at a steady, satisfying pace. She’s highly skilled and agile, although I do get a swooping sensation in my stomach whenever she’s scaling some impossible sheer rock face. 😐

Zip-lining from great heights.

The crafting system is simple and straightforward. I didn’t think I’d like it, but it actually frees up more time to explore. This is not my usual play style, and I will often balance crafting and building with action and adventure. But it actually works in this game, perhaps because of the story.

The Shield-Weave Armour (see image. I would love a dress made from this material).

Scanning beasts and figuring out what types of ammo will work best against them. I love that the game gives you hints about a creature’s weaknesses. You get a selection of different arrows you can use (fire, shatter, etc. There are even arrows that will knock additional parts off a machine).

The Focus that Aloy wears is a godsend for checking out surroundings and assessing threats. It’s also great for finding small animals to hunt for resources.

Overriding is great in theory, but I prefer travelling on foot, otherwise you zoom past too many interesting things.

Did I mention that this game is utterly, breathtakingly stunning? Guh!

The soundtrack is also incredibly beautiful:

Within the Embrace | Meridian | On Our Mother’s Shoulders

Podcast Rec: The HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast

Lovecraft’s stories are very hit-or-miss. A few years ago I went through a whirling reading fest and over the course of about two weeks I inhaled as many of his stories as I could manage. Afterwards, I took a break and tried to sift through my feelings.

For the most part, I came out of it frustrated–so much of his work is problematic and not easy to stomach, regardless of the period in which he was writing. At times it’s racist, xenophobic, classist, homophobic; female characters are under-represented; and his prose can be horrendously purple. And some of his earlier work just isn’t very good at all, on any level.

On the other hand, some of his stories are stunningly creepy and imaginative, and if nothing else, we can thank him for shaping what a lot of weird fiction and horror is today. There’s a reason people still love to run around in his playground, and I think it’s even more important to continue reinventing that playground, make it more accessible, diverse and consistent. But I digress.

At the time I started listening to and loving the heck out of The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast (otherwise known as H.P. Podcraft) hosted by Chad Fifer and Chris Lackey. Basically, they go through most of Lovecraft’s work and provide readings, commentary, music and resources. There were a couple of stories I wasn’t originally able to finish – The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath being one – but recently I’ve revisited them with the podcast providing a kind of Cliff Notes / York Notes support. Plus there are always additional laughs and observations I hadn’t considered. Chad and Chris also often give background info about the stories, such as when Lovecraft wrote them, what he said about them in his letters to correspondents, which magazines they were published in (or rejected by!), and other works inspired by them. It’s interesting listening, and Lovecraft himself becomes a more interesting character when seen through someone else’s eyes.

Of course, eventually you’re going to run thin on Lovecraft material, but they continued the podcast by reading works by other authors of weird, dark or horror fiction, many of them Lovecraft’s contemporaries.

And, for anyone who hasn’t tried HPL before, The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast is a terrific place to start, especially if you’re intrigued about Lovecraft but haven’t been able to find anything by him that’s easy to get into (as I said above, he can be very hit-or-miss).

You can also find them on Twitter and their forums.

The Epic Music Compositions of Michael Maas

Before anything else, I have to point to GrumpySkeletor on Twitter. This account is a parody and if you’re a child of the 70s or 80s, yes, it might tarnish your nostalgia but it’s so ridiculously fun. This is one of my first ports of call if I need a giggle. There is also an article at The Poke listing 34 Times Grumpy Skeletor was the Funniest Twitter Account in the World.

On a music theme, for a good few months now I’ve been unashamedly stalking the music compositions of German composer Michael Maas. I’m a huge fan of epic score style music (it’s a great writing backdrop) and a lot of his compositions could easily be from movies, ads, or nature documentaries – they are so slick and beautiful.

Here are a few links, though there is a lot more available on YouTube and you can grab copies of his work on iTunes. Some of you amazing creatives might find his music inspirational like I do.

 Kaeri. This is soft and slow, with a slight melancholy edge to it which I love. Great to write to! Just listen to the violin and cello.

 Bittersweet. Possibly my favourite of his pieces (so far). I just find this so incredibly chilling, gorgeous, and atmospheric.

 Skylight (Thunder & Rain Edition). Epic and pretty.

 Monster Divinity (Position Music). This is a bit different, more gritty. Sounds like it could be from a first-person horror or sci-fi game.

 Morpheus and the Dream feat. Felicia Farerre. The beginning of this one is gorgeous, with a lovely build and stellar vocals.

I really hope this composer continues to do higher profile work and gets more recognition. And just in case you need a bigger dose, try this: Two Hours of Epic Emotional, Vocal and Piano Music by Michael Maas.

Weird Stuff You Learn Through Research

It’s amazing what weird stuff you can learn while researching. While looking something up for a short story, me and a friend discovered that there are a bucket load of weird patron saints floating around, and the list just keeps growing. Some of them are amusing, some make an odd sort of sense, but some are just plain mind-boggling. Who decides on the saint and the topic? And why would you want or need a patron saint for twitching, or arms dealers, or greeting card manufacturers? (Yep, these all exist.)

In case anyone is wondering, my research is in relation to the naming of a building in my story, so none of these will actually feature as characters. Which is probably a good thing. Or a bad thing? Hm.

So, on with some of the strange(r) saints, and believe me when I say this is not an exhaustive list.

Saint Monica, Patron of Alcoholics.
St. Fiacre, Patron of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Saint Magnus of Fussen, Patron of Caterpillars (I totally want to be this saint).
St. Vitus, Patron of Oversleeping.
Saint Barbara, Patron of Fireworks, Firefighters, and those who work with explosives.
St. Clotilde, Patron of Disappointing Children.
Saint Drogo, Patron of Unattractive People.
St. Jesus Malverde, Patron of Drug Dealers.
Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of Dentists.
St Isidore of Seville, Patron Saint of the Internet.

And these two battle for my favourite:

St. Bibiana, patron saint of Hangovers.
St Hubert of Liege, Patron of Mad Dogs (Protection from Werewolves).

Find extended lists here and here, and I’m sure there are others out there on the interwebs.

(Story research aside, there are a number of opportunities for fictional hilarity on these lists. I’d love to read some humour fiction about these odd saints, so let me know if you get inspired.)

Writing Ambitious Stories and my YA Novel

An excellent blog article that resonated with me is Writers and Ambition, by David B. Coe over at the sadly now defunct Magical Worlds. David writes succinctly about writing ambitious stories, and recently I’ve had to consider this issue myself.

“Creative ambition is what drives us to do things with our story that we’re not sure we’re capable of doing: deeply complex characters, complicated plot twists, non-linear narratives, exotic settings that require that extra round of research or brainstorming. In other words, it forces us to stretch as artists, to challenge ourselves, to risk failure by reaching for greatness.”

I’m reworking a near-future sci-fi YA novel that I originally drafted three years ago. I checked back through my folders and found that I wrote the short story the novel is based on in 2012. Six years ago! I had a small freakout, just for a moment. I’m back in the room now.

The reason I put the novel aside once the first draft was complete was because it didn’t feel quite there. The characters were (and still are) interesting and have motivation, but the plot had holes. Great gaping maws that I could not figure out how to fill. For a while I wondered if the story just wasn’t meant to be. Often, writing involves hard choices, and sometimes it involves walking away from a story permanently if it won’t come together. But that wasn’t it. I never wanted to fully give up on this novel. The idea is strong, and I’m confident that a lot of my themes (social media over-saturation, celebrity culture, technology) would interest a young adult and adult audience. Author Theodora Goss said something years ago that stuck with me:

I think the same thing happens with a novel: in order to write a particular novel, you have to become the sort of person who can write that novel. And of course the process of writing the novel changes you as well. But you have to become the writer. The novel comes out of the writer that you are, and if you’re not ready, the novel won’t work.

Honestly? I don’t think the story was ready to be written. Or I wasn’t ready to write it three years ago. Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed the novel with non-writer friends and colleagues, describing it as on hiatus, and in the process of thinking about it again I’ve changed some key elements of the main plot thread, which leads me to believing it’s time to give it another bash.

The changes I plan to make are more complex and ambitious than the original. All I had to do was give the book some breathing room and give myself enough distance so that I could look at it objectively. That, and discuss it with people I might not have normally discussed it with (non-writers), which helps to approach it from a new angle.

I have no idea if this will work smoothly the second time around. I do believe it will work better than the first time.

Writers don’t have to pull silly tricks to push their creative boats out. You must still write the story you want to write, something you can put your energy behind in good faith. But you can switch things up in small ways. You can weave in a sub-genre you haven’t tried before. You can change one of the bigger elements of the main plot. Or you can write a character who inhibits traits you have yet to explore. If you keep nudging into new territory with every story you write, you will find your plots more ambitious and interesting, and yourself a stronger writer.

Student Writing Workshop – Other Worlds

Back in 2013 I hosted a Creative Writing Workshop with a group of twenty-five Year 10 students at a local school. Year 10, for those of you outside the UK, consists of ages 14-15, though this workshop can be applied to all ages (even adults, depending on your stage in the creative process). The theme of the workshop was Other Worlds.

EXERCISE #1: Come up with examples of Other Worlds you could write about. (10 minutes)

  • Fantasy worlds, set on planets, continents, or in cities that you have created.
  • Fantasy worlds, set on our planet but in a different time (eg. Dark Ages, the Victorian era, in the future).
  • Space. Planets in other solar systems, or set on spaceships.
  • Worlds that exist on a layer beneath our own, such as alternative realities. Think: underground fae worlds, heaven/hell, parallel universes.
  • Dreamscapes.
  • Micro-biology. Worlds that exist in nature, beneath the ocean, etc.
  • Other countries, where you explore cultures that are different to your own.

There were some superb ideas and suggestions from the students in my workshop, with a lot of fantasy world suggestions. Popular ideas were fairies and mythical creatures, but we also came up with some silly ones (“One Direction World” I was half-expecting already. There was an “Ed Sheeran World” as well).

Once the students had chosen one of their Other Worlds I asked them to consider some of the rules those worlds would need to stop things getting unruly. 

EXAMPLE: In the Harry Potter series, magic exists, but it is governed by the Ministry of Magic, which regulates who uses it, what type of magic they use, and when and where they can use it. If there were no magic laws, we would have a big problem and things would quickly fall apart.

Consequences are massively important to how believable your worlds are. As above, if everyone could run around doing whatever they wanted, society would fall apart fast. Everything you invent, every action your character takes, will have consequences. You don’t need to get hung up on this, but just be aware, even if only at the back of your mind, that actions lead to consequences and you can’t just ignore them. Consequences can also bring a great sense of tension to a story, so never be afraid to explore them or let them unfold and take the story in new directions.

EXAMPLE: Consider a world where people never grow old. What are the consequences to this type of society? What sorts of rules might you need to set in place to deal with them? (e.g. Birth regulations, culling the population, harsher death sentences for crime, etc.)

Other things to consider:

  • Climate
  • Technology
  • Language
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Natural resources (fuel, etc.)
  • Social structure (class systems, governments, etc.)

The moral roles your protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters take will often blur. This isn’t something you should shy away from–sometimes your hero will make a bad choice. This is when you can take advantage and show your character learning a valuable lesson. This is the pure essence of character development. Much as we learn and grow as people through our choices and mistakes, so should your characters. Similarly, your antagonist will not always be evil. They must have something about them that readers can sympathise with, even if only logically. Otherwise they will read flat and predictable.

During the workshop we had a go at coming up with some first lines to stories the students hadn’t written yet. I didn’t know how well this exercise would go down as I didn’t take any examples of opening lines with me, mostly because I didn’t want to influence their own creativity. 

EXERCISE #2: Come up with three opening lines to a story you’ve never written. This can be anything. The point is to get started—making that first leap. Generally one good first line will lead to a second line, and that will lead to a third line. Ultimately, this is what stories are: a series of lines that connect up and paint a picture in a coherent way. (10 minutes)

We covered mind mapping to keep a story organised. I have blogged about Mind Mapping for Fiction Writers before.

We also considered writing what you know and how a lot of new authors take this advice too literally. I used my zombie story Shuffle as an example of writing about an important theme that affects most people while still being free to explore a fantastical setting.

We generated characters using a Character Questionnaire. The most important thing is to figure out what your character wants most in the world, above everything else. This makes up the tension and goal of your story and creates boundaries and clear landmarks while writing forward.

I am available to do creative writing workshops, tailor-made for your writing class. Contact me to enquire.

Useful Writer Links and Blog Posts

A few of these useful writer links and blog posts are old now but the info and advice is timeless.

20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes – at Litreactor.

Author Joanne Hall blogged about creative writing walls, those moments during a first draft that many authors hit and strangely they seem to hit these walls at similar times during the writing process. Read Another Brick in the Wall.

One of my favourite author blogs for many years is Rahul Kanakia’s The War On Loneliness. I am drawn to how open and honest Rahul is about creative struggles. If anyone ever says to you that writing is a cop-out profession, kindly point them to Rahul’s site.

7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t – from Daily Writing Tips. Breaking rules is fun, especially when the rules aren’t really rules.

25+ Pieces of Writing Software You Should Know About – Again from Daily Writing Tips.

My friend Yvonne linked me to this. Stephen King once spoke about a number of topics at UMass Lowell, including how he turns an idea into a story, writing screenplays, reading books twice, Randall Flagg (who is always around), creating characters, 50 Shades of Grey and how (some) readers (sometimes) don’t challenge themselves enough, and Lovecraft. Even if you’re not into King, it’s a nifty glimpse into his writing life. I wish he’d had more time to chat. Watch it on youtube here.

And I have watched this many times over the years, and it never fails to give me hope. An Evening With Ray Bradbury (2001), which I highly recommend even if you haven’t read much (or any) of his stuff. Even if you have and you’re not particularly fond of it, the advice in this interview is still relevant to you if you’re a writer. It’s free to view in full on YouTube, the whole glorious hour of it. What a charming, funny and intelligent man he was.

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” –Ray Bradbury

Writing What You Know

Researching your favourite places and writing what you know is one of the best parts of the writing process. I’m currently re-visiting a trip I took to India over a decade ago because some of the locations will feature in a story. I went to southern India for three months back in the year 2000 as part of a conservation programme. Honestly, I wanted to see a wild tiger, but I also wanted to do something completely different and it marked my first ever trip outside the UK.

I mostly lived in a small city called Puliangudi with a family who were volunteers on the programme. They made me and the other British girls feel like part of the family, and when I had photos taken towards the end of my stay, mummy lent me her wedding jewellery to wear. She also asked some of the girls from the local school to dress me in a lilac crepe sari and weave fresh jasmine flowers into my hair (because I would have made a complete hash of it if left to my own devices).

Alas, I didn’t get to see my wild tiger, though I did see a couple in captivity, as crocodiles, countless monkeys and birds, elephants and boars. Oh, and during a weekend excursion, a small island inhabited by lions whose roars drifted eerily across the lake to my hotel balcony at sunset.

One of the coolest things about staying in Puliangudi, apart from the amazing hospitality, was that I was close to the Ghat Mountains which run along the western edge of the Deccan Plateau—a 62,000 square mile deciduous rainforest. My most memorable place in the Ghats is Periyar National Park, where I could have happily stayed forever. I vividly remember taking the boat ride across Periyar Lake, barely blinking in case I missed the flick of an orange and black striped tail. Here is a video highlighting some of the area’s wildlife and flora.

Anyway, what I’m basically saying is that this is my favourite type of research because it takes me right back to that time. Sometimes I can almost smell the towns in the air, a mix of dust and cooking spices and heat and open sewers; there are so many great memories attached. I love that I can take my characters there and relive it.

I’m linking to the main theme to a Tamil political thriller movie I went to see while in Chennai (Madras). The movie was Mudhalvan and it was epic.

 Kurukku Chiruththavale, composed by A.R. Rahman.

Game: Final Fantasy XIII (And Going All the Way)

Final Fantasy XIII is a beautiful, challenging game. Its story is typically complex and angsty, as you would expect from Square Enix by now. Gameplay ranges from breezy and hilarious to hair-rippingly difficult. The characters got under my skin quickly, and while at times they can be quite tropey, the moments when they progress and develop makes the cliches worthwhile.

This game is long. I restarted it a couple of times, but never got past the beginning of chapter nine. But the last time I played it I pulled on my big girl pants and finished the game. I’m so glad I did, as it doesn’t really open up to its full potential until chapter eleven or so.

Pros

The scenery in some of the chapters is breathtaking. It’s a visually rich game, with a lot of texture, depth and colour, and a strange mix of organic and synthetic creatures that make the backdrops unique from other RPGs. Square Enix have always been creative with their monsters (some might even say flamboyant, or just plain wacky) €”but I believe this is part of the charm: you know you’re playing a Square Enix game just from the look of the structures, creatures and vegetation. But really, where it all comes into fruition is in chapter eleven when you reach Gran Pulse. Gran Pulse seems an idyllic eden when you first arrive.

Ah, but when you take a proper look at the creatures milling around waiting to greet you, you quickly notice some of the fanged, clawed, tattooed and extremely violent-looking beasts pacing back and forth or galloping across the landscape alongside you, and suddenly it’s not such a warm, fluffy place anymore.

Saying that, it’s still stunning, and it’s sprawling which was lovely after the linear style of the early chapters. There are a lot of cut-scenes that are a treat too, like the descent to Gran Pulse.

This game has been criticised for its lack of NPCs, and while that’s true on a ground level basis, I really liked the secondary characters you meet along the way. It’s just a shame that you see so little of them and only have minimal interaction (€”I would have liked to learn more about Jihl Nabaat, Yaag Rosch, and Hope’s dad. And dear sweet lord, Cid Raines). Some of these characters are ambiguous, and they struggle with what they believe as events change in the game world.

Another thing that was heavily criticised is the linearity of the early chapters. Didn’t bother me at all, mostly because the story opens up at the exact moment the characters open up and make decisions about what they’re going to do. The gameplay mirrored the characters’ personal journeys.

The paradigm system is fun once you know how to use it. There are six different roles available to the characters: commando, ravager, sentinel, synergist, saboteur, and medic. Each character specialises in three main roles, however, during battle a character may only use one of their main roles at a time, for example Lightning can be a commando in a fight but she can’t be a ravager at the same time. You have to manually switch to a paradigm where she’s set as a ravager if you want her to use magic-based attacks. Often you have three characters in your control as you move through the game. I mostly used Lightning/Fang/Hope as their specialties complimented each other nicely. So a paradigm could look like this: ravager/commando/medic. You can have up to six paradigms preset before battle, and during battle you can switch between them. I loved this concept, as it forced me to think about my battle strategies before diving in, and I had to figure out what would work best for each different foe. It’s not the sort of game you just skim through by mashing the X button.

Farming was surprisingly fun, particularly at early stages and then again later in the game. I did quite a lot of it for Crystarium points, to make money, and to get hold of components I could use to upgrade weapons. There are some Frag Leeches in Gapra Whitewood in chapter five that give good CP and a fair amount of organic materials you can use to raise the upgrade multiplier. Plus, killing those unsuspecting Frag Leeches was fun, man. Another good spot is Mission 7 in chapter eleven; lots of points, money and components to be made there, and as you fill out your Crystarium you notice how Bituitus gets easier to beat.

Cid Raines is an interesting character with a decent story arc. He’s also bloody tough in a fight. In the end I used Lightning, Snow and Sazh for my team, and mostly stuck to the medic/sentinel/synergist and commando/commando/ravager paradigms to defeat him. It took me a couple of tries before I got him, and on the third go I used Fortisol and summoned Odin to help out. Once he was staggered he was a breeze, but getting that stagger is tricky, especially when he de-buffs your party every forty seconds or so. He definitely posed the biggest challenge up to chapter ten. And I loved every second of it.

As far as main characters go, some are way cooler than others. My favourites are Lighting, Fang and Hope, though Sazh and Vanille were fun at times. Snow is probably the one I connected with the least, but he had a couple of sweet moments when his bravado dropped and he showed his true feelings. The scene between him and Light in Gran Pulse was especially nice.

And the ending. It was lovely and bittersweet. I admit to wibbling quite hard while watching the last scenes and when the credits were rolling. I didn’t realise just how completely invested I was in completing the game and having a well-rounded experience.

Cons

Tedious encounters every few seconds. This is probably the main thing I dislike about the game: the amount of small, irksome battles you have to take part in. With a few of the enemies it’s possible to run straight past and avoid fights, or even use a Deceptisol to cloak yourself while you sneak by, but I hate letting enemies go on the first run, even if I know they respawn. So you get a single corridor and maybe five or six separate mini-battles, and that takes up time. Lots of time. This is especially annoying if you can see the save point or treasure sphere just ahead.

Some grunt fights are absurdly difficult. I’m guessing this was the developer’s way of making players think carefully about their character builds and the paradigm settings, but to me it was tedious. Some bosses you encounter on mid-game level become regular grunt type monsters a couple of levels later, and while you’re generally stronger thanks to levelling at the Crystarium, it takes ages to work through them. About the only reason to tackle things like Behemoth Kings is for the CP.

The camera panning. Sometimes you’re running around a corner and you need to see what’s ahead, but you have to wait for the camera to catch up. Mostly, you can pan it yourself, but there are a few times when you can’t and it’s really annoying. I like controlling the view on screen at all times.

And so!

There are a lot of criticisms from fans about this game. A number of gamers say it’s one of the toughest to complete in the series. The thing is, when a game company changes the mechanics of a franchise of course long-time players will find it jarring. It’s different from what they know and they have to re-learn things. I had an advantage with FFXIII because it was the first FF I played seriously (putting aside some stints in VII, and being a fangirl of AC and some of the side-OVAs).

Speaking of future instalments… I gave Final Fantasy XIII 2 a hearty try, but sadly I could not gel with the characters or get into the story. Lightning Returns looks awesome but I haven’t got around to playing it! One day. Soon.

Random Action Cliches

A couple of random action cliches that bug me:

Movies that start with a chase, usually a person running through a city or woods, often panting and screaming and stumbling. This is invariably accompanied by loud crashing orchestral music. The problem is, you don’t see what’s chasing them, not even a flash or flicker or dark shape, so it ends up looking like a random person is randomly running, screaming and stumbling through a random city or woods. I’m not invested in the character right at the start so this set-up isn’t scary. I don’t think books are quite so guilty of this type of thing, but it’s something for writers and readers to consider. An opening scene with no stakes and a load of pointless action falls flat. Nobody will care if your protagonist lives or gets caught and skinned alive.

I also dislike it when a movie character obviously has a nightmare, wakes up screaming and sweating, and their bedfellow or someone nearby says, “Aw, did you have a bad dream?”

Duh.

(Yes, I watched a couple of movies that used these action cliches recently. I’m not saying it can’t work if done carefully, but often it looks uninspired and predictable.)

To make sure this post isn’t entirely full of my ranty-pants:

The Stephen King Universe – a very detailed flowchart linking his books and characters. I love book and character links. It’s something I’d like to do with my own stories.

Science Fiction Goes Hand-in-Hand With Real Research – via The Telegraph. Astrobiologist Dr Zita Martins says: “In Star Wars, there was the Tatooine planet, rotating around two stars. Recently the Kepler mission discovered a planet like that. Imagination always inspires scientists to go in a certain direction.”

Better Book Titles – A blog is for people who do not have thousands of hours to read book reviews or blurbs or first sentences. The author of this blog condenses book plots and puts the often amusing summarised text on the book covers.

Female Sexuality in YA Fiction – at Stacked. The post also links to a handful of other posts on the subject, and is well worth a read.

Inspiration Can Take Ages to Strike

First things first, HAPPY EASTER! Enjoy the chocolate and the bunnies, and the chocolate bunnies, and did I mention the chocolate?

The real reason I’m here is because it struck me the other day how incredibly odd inspiration can be. It can attack at any moment, including the wrong moment. It can hit suddenly, or take a long, long time to develop. This is what sparked my post:

I had an idea for a short YA story a few years ago, but I could not get it to work. The concept is unusual and I was fairly sure it could be a great story, but the characters were not clear enough and I couldn’t figure out how to get them from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the end). I set the story aside for a few months and worked on other projects. Eventually I found the story again, and decided that perhaps it would work better if the characters were in a relationship, but this wouldn’t gel either, and they never quite felt right for the scenario. I put the story aside again and worked on other projects (again).

Years later, I’m playing a stint of Skyrim on the PS4 one evening to unwind and BAM. Inspiration strikes. The characters are in my head and instead of a budding relationship they are best friends. Plus one of them is missing. Suddenly the story drew together; I knew what my protagonist’s motivation was, and I knew the lengths she would go to achieve her goals.

This all happened two nights ago. I now have 3000 word first draft of a YA dark fantasy with a few areas that still need expansion. The first full draft will probably top between 3500-4000 words. I plan to finish it by the end of tomorrow and begin edits later next week.

This story has been years in the making, and it will only be up to 4k words, which is a reasonably short story in the grand scheme of things. My point being, sometimes stories are slow burns. They won’t unfold overnight, they won’t draw together into a neat bow at first, and sometimes it will be tempting to discard them altogether. Writer frustration is a real thing, yo. But perhaps hold off on deleting stories that won’t work, because some day, weeks, months, or years down the line, they just might come together out of the blue.

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