Jon Dixon

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Coming back to writing after a long sabbatical. Back when dinosaurs and disco ruled the world I had several short stories published. I'm currently working on th4e first draft of a fantasy novel influenced by the connected Japanese philosophies of wabi-sabi and kintsugi - the embracing of the flawed or imperfect and the incorporation of visible breakages as an integral part of something of great value. The novel's theme and characters have been lurking in my head for decades and now seem to want to emerge into the light of day. I'm finding the process both exhilarating and terrifying.

I earned my living with an earring and a sword mostly as a professional actor for the first 20 years of my career, and then worked in the far less swashbuckling field of user experience design for the following two decades (no swordplay required). While acting I also worked as a freelance illustrator for paperbacks, role playing games and magazines, and I still keep my hand in with canvas and brushes (or more often now tablet and screen) though nowadays just for my own pleasure. So at least I have accurate reference for my characters' physical appearance!

I live in Derby (UK) with an elderly Bengal cat and three young(ish) chickens.

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For anyone who hasn't come across this before (I hadn't) this nice infographic might come in helpful…
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  •  · Excellent summary Jon! I'm a psychotherapist and I use exactly this explanation with my teenage clie…
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I've recently decided to make a couple of major changes to my work-in-progress novel, 'The Perfectio…
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  •  · Thanks, Irene!
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Hi all,I've just come across an article which may be useful in understanding what makes a query stan…
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  •  · I read all of this article and as ever I'm pleased to see the eclectic mix of successful letters use…
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There's a really interesting piece in the Guardian today from Philip Pullman. Lots of thought-provok…
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  •  · By the way, I've just got Pullman's 'Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling'. Have any of you re…
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Hi all, I wonder if I can ask for honest feedback on the attached short extract from my fantasy nove…
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  •  · Glad it was helpful Jon. From what you've said above, the 'thing' wasn't an issue for me. I understo…
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As I was writing yesterday, I was struck by the fact that my primary antagonist doesn't actually arr…
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  •  · My teacher was very much present I'll have you know.
Jon Dixon
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For anyone who hasn't come across this before (I hadn't) this nice infographic might come in helpful in specifying and refining the varying emotional states of our characters! 😀 

image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=338&dpx=2&t=1610652671

Jon Dixon
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I've recently decided to make a couple of major changes to my work-in-progress novel, 'The Perfection Engine'. Primarily this is to move the start of the story to twelve years earlier than it has been, to add a prologue (of sorts) and to change the point of view from third person/past to first person/present. The first is to enable the introduction of a couple of important characters earlier and hopefully allowing the reader to get a bit more invested in them. The second and third is to give a bit more focus on the particular voice of my MC, through her direct narration, as well as to try and close the psychic distance a bit. I confess that I've deliberately tried to adopt a narrative style that may be a bit old-fashioned. But it suits my MC, I think, it's one that I like and I hope it works.

As the feedback on the original first chapter was so useful, it would be really interesting to get some thoughts on how this very different beginning compares (from those who might have been kind enough to comment on the original) and/or whether it works in its own right as an opening and set-up for the novel (from both those people and those who are coming to it fresh).

I'm very aware that I'm breaking a big and widely referenced rule about opening a novel. It'll be very obvious which one! 😀 I'm wondering if I've got away with it, though.

Attached is the prologue and the first part of chapter 1.

Does this work? Does it spark interest? Most importantly, would you read on? Or, conversely, did you read to the end? 😁 

All feedback, great or small, very gratefully received. Thank you!


Jon Dixon
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Hi all,

I've just come across an article which may be useful in understanding what makes a query stand out. Sorry if this is old news and anyone has seen this already, but if not here is a link.

https://www.writersdigest.com/publishing-insights/how-to-write-successful-queries-for-any-genre-of-writing?utm_content=113886016&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&hss_channel=tw-18964696

The first part of the article is a simple breakdown of what to include in a query, and of course there's a fantastic guide to how to do that here on Jericho already!

https://jerichowriters.com/sample-literary-agent-query-letter/

But always good to have a refresh!

What's perhaps more interesting and more useful is the second part of the article, which provides links to a few examples of actual successful queries (categorised by genre) and fascinating commentaries by the accepting agents on why they worked. 

I found it most interesting. Hope it helps!

Jon Dixon
 added a forum 

There's a really interesting piece in the Guardian today from Philip Pullman. Lots of thought-provoking wisdom and insight, as you might expect. The last few paragraphs struck me as being a really sensible view of the 'genre' debate that often crops up on here, much discussed and rarely if ever solved! What's particularly good is that, of course, Pullman approaches it from the writer's perspective.

I also very much approved of his choice for the 'most popular shelf in the library'! It was always mine too. 😁 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/oct/10/25-years-of-his-dark-materials-philip-pullman-on-the-journey-of-a-lifetime

Jon Dixon
 added a forum 

Hi all, I wonder if I can ask for honest feedback on the attached short extract from my fantasy novel - The Perfection Engine. Some of you have k already been kind enough to comment on the first chapter as well as a scene from later in the book. 

This chapter (partial chapter?) is a bit of a first draft work in progress. So as well as any comments on really egregious over-writing, showing not telling,  issues of psychic distance, repetitions and grammatical horrors, I'm really interested to see if the events portrayed make sense and are understandable. I'm actually trying to convey a very specific 'thing' that happens in the chapter which is quite difficult to describe. I think I've found a way to convey this 'thing' while keeping close to the main charcater's point of view... but I'm not sure if it works. Any thoughts as to whether the 'thing' that happens is clear (or not) would be most welcome.

Because this chapter is some way into the book, it references events that have already happened. So to hopefully help make sense of some of this and to give some of the context that readers of the book will have been given at this point, by now it will have been established that:

- Membra (the book's protagonist) is limbless, and has been for the last twelve years, as the result of injuries suffered in an unexplained attack on her home, the College of Thieves, and its subsequent destruction. 

- Steeltooth, the old librarian of the College, the man who raised her and she loved as a father, was violently killed in the same attack that injured her.

- In the following dozen years, following her recovery from the amputations that saved her life, Membra has adjusted to her new life as best she can. She is living as independently as possible, earning her living as an information miner and researcher, as well as (against all odds) operating as a thief when she can, years of training, dedication, acquired skills and ingenuity somewhat compensating for her disability. Outwardly, she has rebuilt her life. But inwardly,  haunted by regret and guilt, she is incomplete and broken, searching for a wholeness that can never be hers again. 

- A few weeks ago, during an unexpected and strangely well-paid thieving commission to purloin items from a well-guarded Remembrancer's Tower, Membra found a strange device, an ornate metal orb. To her astonishment, she remembers seeing it once in Steeltooth's quarters as a child, but when she had asked him what it was he only remarked cryptically that she would one day understand its promise and its danger. She never saw it again... until her semming chance discovery... or was it chance?

- In her research so far, she has found ancient historical and mythological sources that have given it a name - the Noumenon - and mention it as an object of great power and peril. But there is nothing, so far, that gives any indication of what it actually is... or what it does ... other than tantalising hints at it as the 'harbinger of perfection'. This strikes a chord  with Membra, who believes herself to be imperfect, and makes it all the more important that she finds out the Noumenon's secrets.

- On the night of the break-in when she discovered the Noumenon, she was surprised by a stranger who also seemed to be searching the Tower. He has since tracked her down and identified himself as Custos. An ex-mercenary haunted by his own violent past, Custos has been following his own cryptic trail to an artefact he has been told can grant forgetfulness and redemption to those racked with guilt... and it would seem that journey has brought him to the Noumeno as well.

- There are signs that other malevolent forces are also stirring as the result of Membra's find; indeed, Membra and Custos were attacked the night they first met, escaping only by the sking of their teeth. Bonding as the result of the shared danger, they have become at first reluctant allies, each suspicious of the other, and then - increasingly - partners and comrades. The trust has grown strong enough between them that Custos has recently moved into Membra's lodgings so he is on hand as her research continues...

Now read on! 😀  The doc should hopefully be attached.

Oh, and in the spirit of the recent posts about pictorial representations of our creations... here's an illustration to maybe whet the appetite! 😄 

image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=259&dpx=1&t=1601673643

Jon Dixon
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As I was writing yesterday, I was struck by the fact that my primary antagonist doesn't actually arrive 'onstage' until very late in the book. They are 'present' throughout (in flashbacks, through their influence on events, or through proxies acting on their behalf) but we don't actually meet them in the flesh until almost the climax of the book.

I idly wondered if there was a case to be made for completing this 'separation' by experimenting with changing the end of the book to remove their physical presence completely, and whether this would weaken or strengthen their role. In the end, I decided it wouldn't work - both the protagonist and the reader (I think) need that face-to-face confrontation for cathartic purposes - but it made me think about other fiction (book, movie, play, whatever) where a major character simply isn't there. Not where they physically arrive late in the story (like Boo Radley in 'To Kill A Mockingbird' for example) but where they are literally never actually present.

Two that I can think of off the top of my head are Sauron, the primary antagonist in 'The Lord Of The Rings', and Ellie, the protagonist's adored wife in Pixar's 'Up', who we see in the opening 'lifetime' montage but who dies before the story proper begins. In both these cases, although never actually present at any time, these are still crucial, primary characters who deeply affect the plot and the actions of the other characters throughout the story.

As a fun exercise, can anyone think of any others? 😀  Remember the rules:

1) Must be a major character who has a direct influence on the main plot

2) Must never actually be physically present in any way at any time during the entire course of the plot

(Can be any role - doesn't have to be an antagonist. In fact... extra brownie points if you can come up with a situation where it's the protagonist! Flashbacks, dreams, reportage etc. allowed, as are proxies)


Jon Dixon
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One of my favourite movies from last year was the James Cameron produced, Robert Rodriguez directed cyber-punk story 'Alita:Battle Angel'. I've been a fan of 'Gunnm', the original Japanese manga that it was based on, since its first issues hit the West in the early 1990s, and both Cameron's original treatment and Rodriquez's re-write do a very good job of compressing and re-working the sometimes sprawling storylines from the first four volumes of the manga into a coherent 2 hour plot that both respects the original source material and expands and refines it into something more suitable for the big screen. 

The story, while being a high-octane thrill-ride of sometimes violent action, also has a surprisingly emotional and tender core. It's essentially a coming of age story as we follow the eponymous cyborg heroine on her journey from broken, amnesiac 'insignificant girl' to the discovery that she's actually someone 'very special'. Along the way there's a developing father / daughter relationship, star-crossed teenage lovers, betrayal, bravery, revenge and redemption. It's got a great cast that includes Christophe Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, and Rosa Salazar as Alita (in performance capture) gives the film its poignant and emotive heart.

OK. What's all that got to do with writing? Well, yesterday, a YouTube video about the film popped up in my suggestions, and I found it really interesting from a writing perspective. I don't agree with the video's creator's less than complimentary take on the plot (or lack of it) but his central thesis is interesting and insightful I think.

Essentially, he steps us through the film examining various ways that the film, and its writers, cleverly and deliberately manipulates the audience into first liking and then loving, the central protagonist - identifying with her, sharing her passions, her pains and her joys, and in the end being helplessly caught up in her story... despite (in his view) the actual plot not being all that good.

It gave me lots to think about, and I think he identifies many lessons for all of us as writers, either new or perhaps as reminders of the tools we have at our disposal to manipulate our own readers into identifying with our characters.

It's only 15 minutes or so long, and well worth a watch. 

********

WARNING: the video is FULL of spoilers. It practically reveals the entire plot. So if you think you might want to see the film (which I heartily recommend) and want to avoid having key themes and events of the plot spoiled for you... watch the film BEFORE you watch the video linked below! 😁 

*********

That said... enjoy! I'll be interested to see what other people think!


Alita Battle Angel — How to Manipulate the Audience | Film Perfection


Jon Dixon
 added a forum 

I wonder if I could call upon the kindness and wisdom of the Townhouse again, and ask for some feedback on the attached extract from a scene I'm currently working on?

It's around 2000 words long and taken from the latter half of a later chapter of 'The Perfection Engine', a work-in-progress fantasy novel (I posted a first draft of the first chapter for critique a while ago and got lots of hugely valuable feedback - thank you!).

For information, it is a sex scene. Though hopefully a little more than just a sex scene.

The scene serves at least three purposes in the book.

First, it's a hopefully tender, loving and revealing stage in the developing relationship between my two main characters (who start as wary strangers and have become friends, comrades in arms and finally lovers).

Secondly, it shows a rare 'dark night of the soul' moment for Membra, my main protagonist, where we see her reveal her usually hidden self-doubting side rather than the over-achieving, capable and resolute survivor that she usually shows to the outside world.

Thirdly, and most importantly perhaps, it's the moment when the overall theme and context of the book is stated most openly; Custos's story is directly taken from the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi and the art of kintsugi (I hope I'm not guilty of cultural appropriation in using these so directly) and the whole book, really, is an exploration into the wider application of these concepts. 

I'd really value peoples' thoughts on the scene in general, of course. As well as any 'technical' issues with the writing... does it work? Does it seem truthful? Does it reveal something about the characters and their relationship? Is it too much? Too little?

Additionally, given that Membra is my viewpoint character throughout the book and I want to avoid any unconscious lapse into the 'male gaze' trope, I'd also really value any insight from a female perspective. Does it feel as if it's experienced by Membra rather than 'told' from the writer's own (male) perspective? Does Membra have enough agency? Does it ring true?

I'd really like to avoid being a contender for the unofficial 'Bad Sex Awards' of 2020 (since, looking at the list of past winners of the real awards, I don't think I'm a good enough writer to be in with a chance of being entered into those!). 😂 

Be honest. Brutal if you need to be. Thanks so much for any thoughts or advice!

Jon Dixon
 added a forum 

I noticed this article in the Guardian today.

Flipping hell: book designers lament Waterstones' back-to-front displays

Apparently, due to the Covid situation, some reopening branches of Waterstones are displaying the books with the back cover outwards/upwards so that customers can read the book's description without needing to pick it up. If a customer touches a book but doesn't then follow up with a purchase it has to go into quarantine for 72 hours (the book, not the customer!).

As someone who used to contribute to book covers myself, I feel the pain of the cover artists and designers whose hard work will now be hidden away and unappreciated. But I found myself wondering what changes might be made in the long term if this practice becomes widespread and continues.

What will that mean for writers? Will the blurb move to the front cover eventually, perhaps reduced in length and incorporated into the book's cover design? Will the focus of the jacket design change over time to the back cover rather than the front? 

Either way, if the back cover is going to be the potential customer's first experience of the book, it makes it all the more vital to get the blurb just right. Something I personally find one of the hardest things. And I know from others' posts on the topic that I'm not alone in this. 

Jon Dixon
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Hi everyone. I've finally got a first draft I'm sort of OK with for the first few chapters of 'The Perfection Engine', my adult fantasy novel. No-one's seen this until now, other than the very first page (which Harry very kindly gave me some excellent feedback on which I've incorporated) and a short passage from about halfway through which was uploaded some time ago as part of another Harry-inspired critiquing offer! 

There's lots still to be done with it, I know, on the macro and micro level, and I have reams of notes for the eventual second draft, but I don't want to pre-empt any possible responses from the assembled expertise here by listing them! 😀 It'll be interesting to get confirmation of those faults as well as ones that I'm sure to have missed! For the same reason, I won't give a 'blurb' or a synopsis, so that it stands by itself as an introduction to the book... although some of you may have seen the elevator pitch or hook on others threads.

The big question, of course, as with any first chapter, is whether you're interested and intrigued enough to want to read more! Particularly as this one tends to introduce and hint at future characters and narrative threads rather than hurling the reader straight into action. I'd also like to know if the protagonist is someone you'd want to spend a novel's worth of time with.

I know it's fractionally longer than generally expected at around 3,300 words. Sorry about that. I'd love to know what people think - good, bad or even - worst of all - indifferent. Thanks in advance!


Jon Dixon
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Well, why not. What the hell...

In a response to Holly's beautifully heartfelt post about finding it hard to write this week, I shared an experience I had yesterday when I hit a wall in my own writing. I gave up trying to wrangle words that just weren't having any of it and starting sorting out some old box files in the office. One of them contained probably twenty years-worth of random, unsorted photos. And some of them were pictures of a holiday I went on fifteen or so years ago with my best friends to Corfu (in the ancient days when such a thing was possible). 

As I thought back to those two weeks of long, lazy cicada-serenaded days and nights I remembered the genius locii of the place , and I remembered a fancy that I had, all those years ago, when we were exploring in the hills above the villa where we stayed. And suddenly I had a ... thing... 'Story' is probably giving it too much credit ... a vignette. Based on that fifteen year old fancy, I wrote it down. And here it is, barely edited. I write fantasy, mostly, and I guess that's what this is.

It'll probably never be published. It'll probably never even be seen by more than a few people. Most of them on here I suspect!

Feel free to critique or hurl tomatoes or brickbats. Or maybe even olive branches or laurel wreaths if you're feeling particularly kind. 😀 


*************

Last Days

In the last days of the gods, and the second month of their affair, Panope took Antisthenes far up into the olive groves that shade the rolling hills above Corcyra. There, on a wooded slope that looked across the city to the sea, quite hidden, was an old shrine to the goddess Tyche, roofless and walled with ancient stone.

Panope pushed the door ajar and nodded, seeming satisfied with what she saw.

‘Come in,’ she said, and beckoned to him from a patch of dappled sunlight. ‘Come.’

Once within the walls, they sat on marble benches and ate their lunch of bread and cheese and fruit, and drank sweet wine. The sun was warm as oil against their skin.

‘I used to come here all the time,’ Panope said. ‘To write my songs and poems, play my pipes, and be alone but for my thoughts. Always alone.’ She looked around as if it was a place that she had never seen before. ‘I've never been here with another.’

Her eyes were sad again, her presence fugitive and insubstantial, Antisthenes thought, as if the sunlight gave her being and without it she would fade. His heart ached at the prospect.

‘Until now,’ she said, and lifted up the leather satchel that she'd carried with her, offering it to him.

‘Open it,’ she said.

Antisthenes undid the straps. Inside he found a set of reed pipes, very old and dark and worn with playing, some sweetmeats, perfumed oils and a long-toothed wooden comb. And nestled next to them were sealed ink pots, reed pens and rolls of vellum. On some such rolls the ink was old and faded. On a few the ink was fresh and dark.

‘What are these?’ Antisthenes asked softly, as he carefully laid them out along the bench next to Panope.

‘My poems. And my songs,’ Panope said. ‘Fragments of my heart.’

She lifted up one of the vellum rolls, the writing on it black and new, and offered it.

Antisthenes unrolled it, read it carefully, curiosity transforming into wonder then a strange amalgamation of heartbreak and joy. At the end his eyes were wet enough to blur the words until he blinked them sharp again.

‘You wrote this?’ he murmured.

‘Yes,’ Panope said, and offered up another.

Antisthenes read the second sheet. A tear welled at the corner of his eye. He shook his head.

‘You bring to me a gift,’ he said finally. ‘A thing of precious beauty. Your soul in ink.’

Panope’s eyes glowed bronze and amber, flecked with golden iridescence, pupils wide and dark despite the sunlight.

‘My soul?’ she said, almost a question. Then, like an epiphany, ‘My soul.’

Antisthenes read the sheets again, more slowly, as if each word were a revelation.

‘These are written recently,' he said. 'The ink is fresh. You wrote these since our meeting?’

‘I had not written for a year or longer. I'd stopped coming to this place. I had no reason to, until that day two months ago you met me in the woods. I was alone, the others faded all and gone. Until you came to me... and out of nowhere, in these final days, all my love songs are of you.’

Sunlight touched the spiral ridges of her horns with gold and chased away the sadness in her eyes. She seemed less insubstantial now. She smiled and stepped to him on delicate cloven hooves, her every move a dance, her arms outstretched. Their fingers met and gently intertwined.

Antisthenes drew Panope into a close embrace and gently brushed her lips with his. Her mouth still had the aftertaste of wine and peach-flesh. Her ears flicked with delight as she returned his kiss. She pressed herself against him, solid, real, as tenderness became an urgent need.

‘I will never let you go,’ he whispered as they lowered themselves down into the scented grass, arms wrapped around each other, skin to skin, the fur of her flanks soft against his thighs. ‘You are my treasure and my goddess. You have bound me to your beauty and your grace until whatever end may come. And even then, I will be with you, yours for all eternity.’

‘And I am yours until my fading,’ Panope breathed softly. ‘And beyond if possible. The ocean to your shore. Fuel to your flame. The blood within your heart. I love you, human man.’

That evening in the olive groves above Corcyra, pan-pipes softly played. All else was silence, sunlight, and enchantment, in the last days of the gods.

Jon Dixon
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