Tuesday, 7 November 2017

NaNoWriMo 2017, Day 7: Some Random Thoughts

I seem to have reached the point in the month where it's easier to write the story than to think of anything to say about what I'm doing. There's only so many times you can say 'wrote more words today' before you just can't face it again. *scrolls back* Um... four times, apparently. I can probably do better than that.

So, thoughts after a week of NaNoWriMo:

1. "You just sort of do it" is still the only way I can describe how pantsing a novel works. I could go on about mental pictures of what a novel should look like and the need to have some kind of deep understanding of how stories and storytelling work, but it doesn't matter, because you don't need to consciously think about those things while writing. It's general writer knowledge, not pantsing-specific knowledge. So basically I can't explain what I'm doing and I think I need to be okay with that.

2. Screen brightness makes a huge difference to how well I can write -- to the point where I basically can't write at all on my desktop, and can only write on my laptop if I run it on battery (which lowers the brightness beyond the plugged-in minimum.

3. If this is the kind of character I want to write right now, it totally makes sense that none of the older projects I was looking at in October were 'the one'. The things I need have changed too much for me to easily slip back into an old story.

So, that's my first week done. Onwards! or something.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

NaNoWriMo 2017, Day 2: Tough Questions

The for/against thing seems to be battering against me constantly. NaNo is a great way to establish a writing habit. NaNo is a terrible way to establish a writing habit. NaNo will help me write my first draft. The first draft won't be worth looking at. It all ties into my own self-sabotage, too. I'm pretty sure I can write 50k this month. Six out of seven of my previous NaNoWriMo attempts tell me that.

But, seven out of seven of my previous NaNoWriMo attempts tell me that the likelihood of me ever doing anything with this story again is slim to none. I'll get something written, sure. It's just that by the end of the month I'll almost certainly hate it too much to ever be able to do anything with it. NaNoWriMo has proven multiple times that it can produce words, but it's also proven multiple times that it produces words I don't like

So, my choice is this:

  1. Keep living with the gloomy knowledge that I could have written and didn't (my state for most of this year)
  2. Write something for NaNo and face the strong possibility that I'm going to feel worse about my writing afterwards.
I want a third option. I want there to be a way to get myself writing regularly, but also writing things I can enjoy and go on with. I don't know how to do that, so today when I sit down to start talking myself into writing, I'll be wondering if I'm helping myself or making things worse.

NaNoWriMo 2017, Day 1: Why am I even here?

This is probably just another stage of writing-related negativity. I find myself looking at my progress for today (1855 words) and thinking, "I could have done that any time. I should have been doing this already."

I don't know how to respond to that other than to just remind myself that I'm doing it now. That should be enough. I should be able to celebrate 1855 words as an achievement, not attack myself for not having done it yesterday and the day before. I'm doing it now. And, I'm putting this quote from Daniel José Older's 2016 pep talk somewhere right in my eye-line as I'm sitting at the computer:

"Writing begins with forgiveness. Let go of the shame about how long it’s been since you last wrote, the clenching fear that you’re not a good enough writer, the doubts over whether or not you can get it done. Sure, the nagging demons will come creeping back, but set them aside anyway, and then set them aside again when they do. Concoct a hot beverage, play a beautiful song, look inward, and then begin."

I have my coffee, I have a couple of Ne Obliviscaris albums to listen to, and I have a story waiting to be continued. Inwards and upwards? That sounds weird and vaguely unpleasant. But, yes. Today I need to forgive myself for the past and set aside my demons. Today I've written. Tomorrow, I'll write again. That's enough for now.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

NaNoWriMo Soundtrack, part I: 'Urn' by Ne Obliviscaris

I was going to do a single 'my NaNo soundtrack post, but I've decided I like it better this way. Every few days, I'll introduce a new album that's inspiring me this November.

So, first up is a new release by one of my favourite bands, extreme progressive metal band Ne Obliviscaris. I don't know if that's the right subgenre description. Close enough?

Because I'm bad at reviews, have a list of five somewhat random list of things about Ne Obliviscaris:
  1. They have the best violin in metal.
  2. One of the vocalists looks exactly like the main character from my 2016 NaNo project.
  3. The lyrics are good poetry as well as being great to listen to.
  4. The last two tracks on this album are 50% of the inspiration for the title of this year's NaNo... which I didn't name 'Haunting perfections of the mirrored void' only because that's awkwardly long as a filename.
  5. This is the 'two male vocalists' duet I've been wishing for pretty much ever since I found out about death/extreme vocals.
Seriously, this album is amazing. It's everything you could possibly want in a follow-up to 'Citadel'. I'll be listening to both albums a fair bit this coming month. Basically, for my taste Ne Obliviscaris is very close to the complete musical, literary, and aesthetic package. Not that there's anything I don't like about it, but... well, I guess my heart was already taken. We'll get to that another day.

Anyway, go listen to this album!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

NaNoWriMo 2017: (Probably) My Daily Process

It's almost time for NaNoWriMo. So far in the lead-up to this year's events I've:

  1. Tried to plan an ambitious rewrite.
  2. Considered starting a new story but keeping the old one in my mind as I do it.
  3. Decided I probably should just write a whole new story to remind myself I can do it.
It's only the 30th, so I still have time to change my mind at least once more. I have something in mind for that 'whole new story', though, so I might be settled now.
So, onto the finer details. I don't know if I've talked about this before, but this is more or less my daily process:

First, clear away any clutter on my desk. I have quite a small desk at the moment, so I have to pack away one task to make room for a new one. It turns out this is also a good way to shift my mind from one thing to another. Handy bonus!

Second, set up all my writing stuff. I need pens, paper to write on, and my current project's Zim wiki open on the computer screen. If I'm going to use the typewriter, I also need to set it up and check over everything to make sure it's working.

Third, pick some writing music. I'll do a post about that later, probably.

Then, it's time to start writing. In spite of all the preparation and stuff, there's nothing special here. I just open the file or grab a blank sheet of paper and dive into it. The last sentence from yesterday is the clue to the first sentence of today, and the first sentence leads naturally into the second, and so on.

Usually, I'll write for about 30 minutes and get somewhere around 500 words. If I'm feeling gloomy, I'll cut down to 15 minutes, and if I get into the zone I'll forget to check the clock and end up doing just about my entire wordcount in one session.

Then... well, rinse and repeat until I get to 1667 words. Most of the time, that's enough.
Occasionally, I have to get away from the computer. I haven't worked out how to use a typewriter in bed, so this tends to mean pen and paper. This is also the perfect late-night option for keeping the noise down or for enjoying the silence.

So anyway, that's how I write. I think.

I guess NaNo is going to be all about testing my process and trying out new stuff. Should be fine, right?

Friday, 27 October 2017

NaNoWriMo 2017: And here's where the second thoughts kick in...

I had forgotten — allowed myself to forget, maybe — that by the standards of the NaNoWriMo forum I do everything wrong. If I offer advice or support to someone, the next few posts will be contradictions targeted directly at me. If I ask a question, all responses will be phrased in terms of 'you've done everything wrong up to now, but you can save yourself by following my advice'.

This is... honestly, probably all in my head. It's me being oversensitive or something. It's the community assuming every question has 'I need to throw my entire process out the window' at its core. That much, I've observed from reading threads I have nothing to do with.
So, I end up in this position: I sort of want to do NaNoWriMo for the challenge, but I think trying to get involved at all is only going to hurt me. I'm not naturally a confident writer and being part of a community that can be relied on to criticise every part of my process will give the voices of doubt and uncertainty that much more strength.

The thing is, the NaNoWriMo community is supposed to be the best part, not the worst. It's supposed to be supporting and caring, and most of the time I can tell myself that all the criticism and correction is well-meaning. When it's directed at me, though, I can't shrug it off. I start to question myself instead.

What if the reason I haven't written much this year is that there's something terribly wrong with my process? Do I need to throw it all out the window and try something new? According to NaNoWriMo, the answers would be 'yes, that's the reason' and 'yes, you definitely should change your process'. Bit by bit I internalise this idea that everything I'm doing is wrong, and without even setting out to do it I start trying to change things.

Changing things according to advice and self-doubt only leads one place: straight into the Brick Wall of 'I Give Up'. According to the community, this is because I'm not trying hard enough. If I really set my mind to the task of learning and implementing this new process — whatever it is — I'd be fine. And, I'm never fine. I only become fine when I escape from all the well-meaning but ultimately destructive advice and go back to what I know has worked in the past.

I usually don't get to this point until about mid-November, when the negative thoughts about how badly I've followed all the advice becomes overwhelming. To sit here before NaNo has even started and realise the community will poison me is a strange feeling. I'm not sure where to go from here.

So, this is what has worked for me in the past:

  1. Before starting, I need a title (so I can name files something) and a genre (which is automatic, because I always know I want it to be SFF). Nice but not necessary: a named character and a vision of where this character is sittng when the story starts.
  2. Have a significant starting date (usually 1st of the month), a clear ending date, and a daily and overall wordcount goal.
  3. While writing, maintain consistent progress: write every day, keep hitting the daily goal.
It's that simple, and that hard. This November, if I write anything at all, this is what would work. I just have to convince myself to stick with it, because that's the real problem I have with writing: not that my process is wrong, but that I need to work harder at actually following it.

NaNoWriMo 2017: A Pantser's Journey

This year, I had... well, not exactly a plan, but a clear intention. I wanted to escape from my 'big' project of the last year or so, and I wanted to do it by reviving an old, incomplete story. I spent a week or so reading old stories and picked out a likely candidate. This was in the first week of October. Then, as writers often do, I settled down to plan out exactly what I was going to do.

Two weeks later, I realised I'd actually been using study to procrastinate from planning my novel. Yes, you read that correctly: I avoided planning my novel by studying. That was about the point where the Self-Doubt Monster re-entered my life. If I had so little enthusiasm for what I was going to write that I'd rather work on an essay about 19th century French realist authors, something must be seriously wrong. Maybe I was never really meant to be a writer, and it was time to put all this silliness behind me and... and that's where I stopped, because the nice people at NaNoWriMo invited us all to think about what would be our biggest obstacle this November.

Answer: Basically, me. I am in my way. My biggest obstacle to overcome in NaNoWriMo or any other writing is my inclination towards self-sabotage. Given the slightest opening, I know I'll be able to talk myself out of writing and probably even persuade myself I shouldn't have started in the first place. I'll convince myself I haven't got time right now, or that I shouldn't write until after I've finished today's study tasks, or that now that I've missed a couple of days there's no point continuing, or that I've made a terrible mistake 10k ago and there's no way to continue without finding and rectifying that mistake... and it goes on.

And, that's what I'd been doing all this month. By deciding to plan this novel, I'd given myself a platform for talking myself out of writing it.

So, I asked myself this: when has sitting down and planning things out ever gotten me out of trouble with something writing-related?
Answer: essay writing. There, I have notes and plans and a nice tidy skeleton to follow, and things tend to work out best if I stick to them.

Everything else, though, I just sort of throw a bunch of stuff onto a page and then repeat that until I get something that looks more or less like the expected product. I'm aware of structure as I do it, but only in the most general sense. Anything more creative than an academic essay is written and rewritten by feel, not by lists and outlines.

So, this is what I'm going to do in November. No plans, no outlines, no list of instructions for rewriting an old draft. I'll have the old story in my head, but mainly I just want to make a story-shaped space in my life and then set myself the task of filling that space.

I have a plan. My plan is to write like hell until I reach the 50k goal, and then keep going until I get to the end of the story. If the pants fit, write by the seat of them!

I'll figure the rest out later.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Some thoughts about process and SeptNoWriMo

So, I have this idea that maybe I'm subconsciously discarding processes that work. Not sure why: some kind of weird self-sabotage, most likely. To try to fight back against this, I'm trying to figure out what works and what doesn't work, and I'm starting by looking at my work over the past few years. I've tried a few different processes with varying results.

* I've written five 1000-word stories (Death-stream, Drunk/Goat (untitled), The Goat Man, Alone Together, and Haunting Perfections of the Lightless Void).
* I've written one 9k short story (Swanflight/The Last Dance Before Midnight).
* I've written 40k of a novel or series (The Nightmare Box).

Of those, the most successful would probably be either SSSFFSS or the flash fiction. Or, most worked on would be TNB. Which is the deciding factor: most complete, or most effort? If I go with most effort, that makes me feel more like my spreadsheets are some kind of use, so I'll probably try that for now. So...

2017: TNB is most worked on, TLDBM (SSSFFSS) is most complete.
2016: LOFB is most worked on, TWEOTR (SSSFFSS) is most complete.
2015: Placeholder is most complete. Looks like most worked on is Fire and Ice.
2014: Most complete will be Children of Light (SSSFFSS). Most worked on is either The Artist or Necroverse in general.
2013: Most worked on and most complete is Seeker: second drafts of Doom, Despair, and Desolation.
2012: Most worked on would probably be Doom. Most complete is probably the second draft of Darkness.
2011: Most worked on will be Dispersion. There's no clear contender for most complete as all 12 drafts that year were completed first drafts.

Next question: of the projects listed, which are most indicative of the process I was following that year? If I go by that sort of criteria, it's going to be like this: Dispersion, Doom, probably Doom again, The Artist (although with reference to the interference of the wider Necroverse), Placeholder, LOFB, TNB. Although, if I break out of the thing with years slightly...

Alternative: can I identify a generic set of processes as suggested by these stories?

1. Deadline and wordcount goal, linear pantsed. This is what I was doing in 2010, 2011, and 2012, with 15 first drafts completed in that time.
2. Deadline and wordcount goal, non-linear pantsed. I switched to this in 2013 and although I can reach the wordcount goal within the time, I don't seem to be able to make a coherent story out of it.
3. Wordcount goal but no deadline, linear pantsed. I've tried this off and on from 2013 to the present and it doesn't work, because when there's no reason to keep poking at it I tend to quit at the first major hurdle.
4. No wordcount goal, no deadline, non-linear pantsed. This is the 'take out everything that works and wonder why I'm not getting anywhere' one, which I tend to interweave with #2 in the hope of fixing it.

That's four variations. Looking at that list, I reliably complete drafts when I have both deadline and goal and I write straight through from start to finish. I've finished a couple of shorter things by dropping the linear part, but it doesn't seem to work for longer stuff. And, there really isn't much point starting a project with no constraints. So, based on my own historical data, this is probably what my optimum process looks like :

1. I need a clear idea of the format/wordcount required. E.g. 'novel', 'short story', '50k'.
2. I need a work structure somewhat like NaNoWriMo where I have a daily wordcount goal and a fixed start/finish date. It doesn't have to be the length of NaNo, but needs a certain level of "you can't back out" built into it.
3. I can write random scenes occasionally, but I should mostly focus on producing a linear narrative.

So, I'm thinking of getting back to something like this, which possibly means I need to declare next month a somewhat official SeptNoWriMo.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Some random NaNo Prep thoughts

I had some thoughts about NaNoWriMo preparation while writing a forum post today, so I've decided to expand them into a blog post. Here goes:

My NaNo Prep strategy is to pretend I'm not going to do it until the last possible minute, then make a snap decision that I'm going to take a break from whatever I'm working on to do something fun. The problem with this is that I got kind of obsessed with the thing I started last NaNo and I'm still working on it, so to follow my usual strategy I'd probably have to go back to the thing this project is a distraction from. Or, I could follow my more recent 'usual strategy' and just keep attacking this project until I finally get to the end.

As far as planning vs. pantsing I'm definitely a pantser, so my preparation for NaNo is pretty simple. I make a list of characters I know are going to be in it, write a brief description of them, write down some rough guidelines for the setting, then try to write down what the opening image is without actually starting the story. If I know anything else e.g. I might be setting out to find a different way to develop an older idea, I write that down as well. I don't bother trying to develop plot points or anything like that, because at this stage it would be a list of things that definitely aren't going to happen rather than a useful guide.

Also, you need a title. It serves several functions for me - an expression of theme, a thing to name folders and story files, and of course a necessary part of signing up for NaNoWriMo. The 'expression of theme' thing is sort of by accident. I choose titles that sort of fit the story I'm expecting to write, but they end up being somehow integral. For example, one time I used the title Placeholder because I had no idea what I'm going to write. One of the major characters turned out to be the prototype/guinea pig for an experiment the bad guys were running, and another one became a scapegoat of a less-bad guy's embezzlement scheme. Or another time I decided I definitely didn't want to write about a necromancer, so I used the joke title Hold the Necrosauce. You'll never guess what the story ended up being about.

 Finally - and this probably sounds either obvious or silly - I don't think you really have to do anything special or different for NaNo. It's more like the distilled essence of the things that already work for you. If you usually plan things thoroughly, you won't suddenly be able to write a fantastic pantsed draft, and if you're usually a pantser it's quite likely you'd end up dumping any planning you attempt. So, I'd say the first step is to figure out what works (and what doesn't work) for you already. Then, figure out how to adapt the 'what works' list to working at NaNo speed and also probably figure out how to avoid falling into the dangerous territory of the 'what doesn't work' list.

So, conclusion:

  1. You will get attached to your NaNo story even if you start it as a distraction 
  2. You need a title. Your choice of title will probably affect the story even if it's just a joke or placeholder.
  3. Make two lists - 'things that work for me' and 'things that don't work for me'. Use the first list to figure out your NaNo strategy.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Sparks Project (subtitle: looking for something to set me on fire)

Okay, so I'm struggling with short story ideas and I need to be not struggling. I already know that, and I already have a vague idea about trying to write them in existing universes, but that's not really going to solve the problem. The real problem is that I'm on the wrong side of another divide: the one between 'serious writer' and 'muse dust'. The story ideas I've been coming up with for uni are in the 'serious writer' category, which means I'm coming up with things I think I should be writing rather than things I actually want to write. So, in August I'm trying to change this pattern. I'm basically going to work in a cycle of plan-write-reflect and try to settle into the restrictions so I can start playing with them. I don't know if that makes sense, which means it probably doesn't.

The process I'm following is simple:

1. Think of a title.
2. Plan the story.
3. Write the story.
4. Reflect on the story.
5. Start again at #1 with a new idea.

There are only a few rules. Stories should be between 900 words and 1100 words. I'm also aiming to start a new story every second day, although that's not a rule so much as an ambition. If they take longer or I miss a day for some reason, that's okay. Also, it's a semi-rule that the reflection should be written on a different day to the story itself, because if I try to do it straight away I'll miss the things I'd be able to spot after a bit of time.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

August Goals and Plans

August is the month of goats! Also, the shortest 'Daily Goats' on the Blackwood farm since... probably some time in the late 90s? We have only one mother-to-be this year, due on the 22nd. They're most likely going to be solid black with white markings (British Alpine), but could be solid black (Australian Melaan). I'm going to take as many pictures of them as I can, but given my record I guess I'd better not promise anything will appear here...

Writing-wise, I plan to make August a month of flash fiction. I have to write two stories for assessment and I've been wanting to do a bit of world exploration for some of my big projects, so I have this idea about combining the two things and writing flash set in those worlds. I also have a bit of 'alternate universe' stuff I want to do for two (not quite) abandoned characters to see if I can find a world that accommodates their abilities, and I have two sections of my current major project 'The Nightmare Box' that I want to finish rewriting.

Goals for August:

* Write and polish at least 2 flash stories.
* Always Be Writing - constantly have at least 1 flash story in active planning/writing/editing mode.
* Finish editing/rewriting the two sections of TNB.
* Initial plan for revising two of my totally-not-abandoned projects.
* Read 4 books (3 free choice, 1 nonfiction).
* Blog stuff.
* Complete all assessment tasks for uni (1 essay, 1 quiz, 2 short stories + exegesis, 4 sets of forum posts).

I have no idea what to blog about, so at the moment I'm creating redundant rainbow chickens again by posting the same things here as on my Steve PPT. Anyway, this is my August. Flash fiction, some planning, a bit of rewriting, a lot of assessment-related panic. On with the show.

Hmm... August flash/short fiction challenge for Steve? As long as I'm going to be doing it anyway, I might as well put it up as a challenge. That seems to be my basic philosophy for challenges - if you're doing it anyway, post a set of rules so anyone else who wants to can try the same thing. In this case the rules would be really simple, since the only requirement is to write something that's somewhere around the right length. Or should it be a '1000-word chunk' challenge instead so I don't have to feel like I've failed if I end up with something that's really a part of a novel?

Monday, 10 July 2017

Camp NaNoWriMo Day 10: Writing is going okay. Everything else... not so great.

I had a run-in with Myron the 100kg buck goat on the 3rd and managed to briefly dislocate my right shoulder. Also lots of bruises on my back and a hoof to the right side of my face. So... yeah, this is going to be a problem. I still can't use my right arm much, so I'm staying away from the computer whenever possible and handwriting for Camp NaNo. This is surprisingly successful - I'm actually slightly ahead at the moment - but it means all that time I spent cleaning my typewriter on Day 1 was wasted effort. While I can use the computer keyboard a bit, the typewriter demands too much shoulder movement.

So, doing okay with writing but not really keeping up with blogging, social media or my cabin-mates. I feel weird about that. Am I having a good month or not?

Thought for today: Write the thing you can't resist.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Camp NaNoWriMo Day 1: A bit of a wobble, but a successful start

I didn't start Camp NaNoWriMo at midnight.

This is not in itself odd or noteworthy. Midnight starts are fun and all, but they're not exactly mandatory. In fact, the only reason I'm mentioning it is that I was awake at midnight and I wasn't writing. Not just in a 'I was doing something else' way, either. I was the 'alone at the desk having a bit of a wobble' kind of 'not writing'. It went like this:

Friday June 30, 11:20pm

I can't start from scratch because I don't have time to plan it out. I can't keep going with... well, anything... because I'm so fucking lost with it all that I wouldn't know where to start. So, the only thing left to do is write about the things I can't do. Somehow that tends to mean the metafictional adventures of Siana and Scott, which as the heading implies seemed like a good idea for about two minutes. I could go on some kind of journey of self-discovery or something - hook up with my old imaginary friends and talk about the utter mess I'm making of my writing career, and maybe regather my strength and build up writing muscle for working on new, serious things.

Then a couple of minutes later I was like "How is that going to help? I should just put on my big girl pants and attack a proper project. Metafiction is just a complete waste of time and effort!"

And... the thing is, I just don't know. Would it help? Ideally, it would be a quiet way to get into my own head - really dig into the things I want to do and the reasons why they're not happening. On the other hand... wait, is there another hand? If it just ends up random hijinks with characters, at least I'm writing something.

The decision basically comes down to 'panicflailrunaroundtheroomwavingmyarmsandnotwriting' or 'try the metafic thing'. I can set constraints, like that maybe I'll only try it for the first week, or like I'll stick to the 500 word thing as a target rather than a minimum, but really...

Saturday July 1, midnight

I can't do this. I'm too scared. Too broken. I. Cannot. Do. This.

So scared. So... I don't know how to explain it. I'm just sitting here trying to put anything at all on the page because I'm so scared there's nothing real in here. I feel defeated. The WIP list will never be conquered, the assessments will never be done, nothing will ever just turn out fine. I want to burn, but I just sit here cold and useless, and I don't know what to do about it.

Two things, Siana: first, switch off the computer. Second, get off the uncomfortable chair and find a spot where your body doesn't hurt so much.

Saturday July 1, 12:30am (transcribed from notebook)

Think about the actual, real, significant problems. Not the ones I'm absorbing and labelling myself with from the web or books. Just the real things that are stopping me.

So, why not the metafic? Not just 'it's not serious or productive'. The real reason.

Because my heart is elsewhere.

Yeah? Where?

In the Nightmare Box with my little necromancer.

So, why not work on that?

I don't know what happens next... and that's silly, because what's this 'next'? If I don't have an immediate idea for what happens next in the riverside training, what about all the other bits that belong in there? Crows and phones, dust and bones, ice and stones...

The thing is, I know that pattern of thought, and once I started writing it down I recognised the pattern and was able to realise that I needed to get myself comfortable and ask that one important question: where is my heart right now?

(Side note: as long as the answer is 'somewhere inside that lump of pain I call an upper back and ribcage', it's a fair bet that no work is going to get done. Ditto if a similar question about my writerly brain gets 'behind eyes that can't focus on something backlit'.)

So, today I cleaned probably something like 40 years of sticky stuff out of my typewriter, tidied my office, and didn't even start the computer until about 11:30pm when I was ready to update my wordcount. Using my now ridiculously soft-touch typewriter, I wrote 1032 words of the story I've been working on since the start of April, which I may or may not be lost in. If I just keep writing, though, I'll probably find my way out.

Also, I got this in my email after updating my wordcount!

Final thought: I don't have to know the whole story right now. It's enough to just keep following my heart.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Sort of a book review: Writing From Start to Finish by Kate Grenville

I've started reading Writing From Start To Finish by Kate Grenville, and it's the first 'how to write' book that's ever even remotely clicked with me so now I'm going to bore everyone who reads this thread by talking about it.

The book follows the entire writing process from initially deciding to write something all the way to giving it the final polish. It focuses on short stories and essays, but also explains how the same process can be applied to any kind of writing. Unusually for a writing book, it doesn't start with planning. Or at least, not the plotting/outlining type of planning. Instead, the fiction-writing section starts with the idea of giving yourself an assignment. For example, "Write a novel about a necromancer, using the theme 'serenade of self-destruction'" would be a description of the 'assignment' for my current main writing project. Then you use the directions and constraints of the assignment as the first steps into generating piles of ideas and information - just sort of wild brainstorming at this stage using various combinations of mind-maps, lists, research, and freewriting. Then once you've generated enough ideas, you sort them into piles depending on how useful they are or how well they fit into the assignment.

Then you start constructing the outline, long after I would have expected to be told to do it.

The thing is, looking at a lot of my 'chaos drafts' I can sort of see that they're right back at that early step of generating ideas and information. The next step isn't for it to magically come together as a complete novel draft - it's sorting all the bits and pieces into what really fits the original 'assignment' and what doesn't. Even then, the outlining stage is constructed on the basis that you'll be adding and changing ideas the whole way through it, and the drafting stage is practically inviting me to write in whatever order I want. Overall, the book is the closest thing I've found to a reference for the writing style I've found myself adopting.

Overall, this book is easy to read and the process it describes is easy to follow, but also easy to adapt if you're someone like me who already has a few established quirks. It's going to be extremely helpful for the coming Camp NaNo month. I only wish I'd bought it a bit earlier so I had more time to get myself sorted out.

I bought it from Booktopia, but I assume it's available from all the usual retailers.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Of Dark Backgrounds and Blue-Light Filters, a rant

Me: *adds "Don't recommend f.lux" to a post requesting dark themes*
Everyone: *recommends a whole bunch of things that are basically f.lux*
Me: *goes on a Twitter rant*

Rather than just embedding the tweets, I'm going to try to expand them a bit. So, I guess here's the second draft of my rant.

The first thing I have to say is this: If your software has light-background areas that can't be changed, it's not suitable for people who need dark backgrounds. This usually means toolbar and menu backgrounds, but there are some applications where the main text area can't be changed. If someone has changed to a dark-background theme, they did it for a reason and it's highly unlikely that the reason will just evaporate because you (the developer) told them your application needed to be used in light background/dark text.

There's also a sub-type of the background colour issue where the program will accept the dark background of an OS (operating system) dark or high contrast theme, but only at the cost of reduced functionality. Some elements might disappear or not display correctly, and in a lot of cases there are entire features that disappear. As an example of this, try setting a high contrast theme in Windows and then opening a spreadsheet that has cell background colours. Guess what you're going to see. I'll give you a clue: what colour did your high contrast theme set as 'background'? I mean, seriously. If changing to a dark/high contrast theme removes functionality, it's also not good enough.

These are serious issues for people with certain eye conditions. I'm photophobic and migrainey (I know there's probably a word for that...), and looking at light-background computer screen content is immediately painful and then migraine-triggering. I cope online by using a selection of Firefox add-ons to force dark backgrounds, and I choose my desktop applications for their ability to conform to my desired colour scheme.

Telling me to change to an orange/red background via a blue-light filter isn't going to cut it. I've tried them. Regardless, whenever I (or anyone else I've seen who posts about photophobia/migraines) asks for solutions, it's the same answer. "Just get... [blue-light filter that worked for me]". Well, no. Bright red or yellow light is very nearly as bad for me. When I say 'dark' I mean black or dark grey. (Actually, my very favourite background colour is #060A08, with text of #78B97E. You wanted to know that, right? PS: if you're on my blog, you're probably looking at those colours right now.)

Now, this isn't a universal problem, or one of scale. Although many big-name projects have major problems with backgrounds (including a couple of popular fiction-writing programs and just about every kind of spreadsheet program), the other end of the scale can actually be better. There are projects with only one or two developers who do a great job of either having really simple theming or letting the OS decide the appearance of the window. Some of my favourite programs that handle this nicely are FocusWriter and CherryTree — both, as far as I know, single-developer projects. My most-used program, Zim Desktop Wiki, has a couple of issues on Windows, but at least I can choose whatever theme I like from the GTK2 archive.
For your visual pleasure, my beautiful Zim Desktop Wiki, with GTK2 theme. It's called 'Darkmint' by the way.
So, the open source community can manage to write software I can use. From what I've seen browsing the code, it may actually be EASIER. Many (most?) programming languages have features to allow the OS to style the window. To get around them, you have to hard-code stuff. That means building the colours and images right into the program itself, which is both tedious and annoying, to say nothing of how hard it is to change anything later on. If you have any web-development experience, that's like using tables and inline styling when you could have had divs and a separate CSS file.

Yep, I make the best comparisons.

Anyway, what the programming bit means is that if you're in charge of one of those unfriendly-to-photophobes software projects, you're doing it wrong. If you'd used the built-in features for making programs conform to the OS theme, you could have saved work, made your code easier to maintain AND made it easier for people like me to use your software. From where I'm sitting,that seems like it should be a good idea, not a bad one.

Okay, now that I've turned a few Tweets into an 800+ word blog post, that's definitely enough of a rant. If the software companies are right, nobody cares much about this and I'm wasting my time writing about it, but... I mean, you have to start somewhere, right?

Here's the bottom line:

Software companies, do your own damn work! Don't just try to out-source it to blue-light filters. Dark backgrounds are needed, so please start allowing for them. As I said earlier, it might even make your job easier.

Monday, 19 June 2017

July on Steve the WriMo Forum: juice boxes, jubes, and joy!

Greetings Stevians past and present!

First of all, this is an invitation to those of you who haven't visited Steve the WriMo Forum in a while. We're still here and we'd love to have you back! I'm trying to get hold of everyone I possibly can, so as well as posting here I've sent out a mass email and will be linking to this post on Twitter.

Next, plans for the coming month of July, which is a Camp NaNoWriMo month. For this month I'm revisiting my April theme: unless you have a compelling reason to avoid it, I think everyone on Steve should sign up for Camp NaNo.

Reasons why:

1. Compelling reasons aside, it's basically something you'd be doing anyway, only with a slightly stronger feel of 'challenge' to it and an extra incentive to make it a more or less daily thing.

2. You can set just about any goal you like - words, hours, minutes, lines, pages.

3. The lowest goal number you can choose is 30, so if that applies to all of those things, you could be signing up for a goal as low as one word per day for the month. (Note: I don't actually know if this is true. There's probably different minimum goals for the different goal types.)

4. It gives us a unifying theme for Steve - regardless of what goals and projects, we'd all have the same goal of not slipping behind in our Camp goal.

Because we already have an entire forum for chatting through the month, there isn't going to be an official Steve cabin, although anyone can feel free to start an unofficial one. There will be various small writing challenges throughout the month, on a secret schedule known only to myself.

(Okay, I don't have a schedule. I may try to make one up before then, though, because it's much easier to think of challenges when you're not neck-deep in a NaNo month.)

As usual, there will be thread on Steve for suggestions, discussion and general preparation for July. In particular, suggestions for challenges to put on that schedule would be fantastic. Also, any June planning/preparation challenges that could help us get ready for July. While we all have different techniques and approaches, sometimes something that works well for one writer could provide the missing piece of the puzzle another writer needs.

The planning thread is here: July: juice boxes, jubes, and joy! (you'll need to log in to access it, though)

So, are we ready for July?

Siana, (Steve co-admin)

PS: If you've forgotten your Steve password or username, check your email! Virtually this exact message was sent around as a mass email today, and the email will show you your username. You'll be able to use that email account and username to reset your password and log back into Steve.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Story elements I need to figure out in advance: "Why this character?"

Quick note on my blogging schedule: for June, I think it's going to be this: at least 3 posts per week, no set topics. In July I'll increase it to at least 5 per week, mostly with the theme 'Camp NaNoWriMo day x: title'. I'll think about August and beyond if I manage to keep the blog alive for June/July. At the moment I'm mostly thinking about blogging as an extension of journalling - similar to how I use my PPT on Steve the WriMo Forum.

Now, on with today's topic: the things I need to figure out in advance.

In my notes for one of my current classes (Writing the Short Story), there's this question: do you think some story elements look after themselves as long as you concentrate on others, and which do you think are the important ones to focus on?
Being me, I automatically answered that the important elements are 'character' and 'setting'. Everything else - plot, structure, voice, viewpoint, style and so on, I tend to assume will grow out of solid characterisation and setting-building. However, while this is a nice idea and makes me feel all writerly and creative, there's a big problem.
I don't actually do these things.

Right now I have this tangled mess of characters, settings and plots that I believe can be divided into (I think) five entirely separate stories. So, if I believe the two most vital building blocks are the characters and their worlds, you'd think the way I'd try to untangle it would be to make solid versions of the characters and settings and then work outwards from there. Am I doing this? No. I'm just sitting here flailing, and the stories are still tangled and largely unwritten.

A more honest answer to that question would be that I believe some elements look after themselves as long as I oncentrate on others... but that I don't actually know which elements fall into which category. For example, in my last (entirely pantsed) story, I tried to end the world with space-sunflowers. I came up with that basic premise, and then just sort of sketched the rest of it in. The story almost worked and I got a pretty good mark for it, but there was something missing. Specifically, there was a giant hole in my characterisation and I think this points me towards one of the elements I really need to have in advance. The element is this: "Why this character?"

As soon as I read the comments, I knew it wasn't just a problem with that particular story. I could come up with a list of other things I've written where that question casts a dark cloud of uncertainty over the whole thing. So often, when I'm embarking on an editing/rewriting project, the only answer I can come up with is "Because the writer said so" as an answer, and I always know it's not good enough but can't come up with anything better. I conclude that the character I've created and the plot I shoved them into are so hopelessly incompatible that there's no way to fix it. The number of drafts in that category right now is slightly bigger than I'd like to admit. This is a problem I really need to learn how to fix.

While I was trying to answer the study question, I came up with an idea for a writing exercise that I think would help. Basically, I find a question I don't know the answer to ("Why this character?") and come up with a brief answer.

"Why this character?"

"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Why was she in the wrong place?"

"Because her handbag strap broke and she had to sit down for a moment to figure out an emergency fix."

...and so on. That example has nothing to do with anything, but it sort of illustrates the point. I ask myself a question, answer it, and then construct a new question out of a problem in the answer. I don't know if it's really going to help, but maybe if I can dig deep enough into those questions I'll at least be able to come up with a concrete answer to the original "Why?" question.

So, readers, have you ever tried anything like this before? Liked it? Hated it? Disappeared into an endless void of circling around the same questions, then given up and used the story as cat litter?

Although, I guess most of us do these things on the computer, so maybe 'hard drive clutter' is more likely than 'cat litter'. You have to go to special effort to turn it into something for your cat, while consigning it to the folder of abandoned WIPs is just a quick click-and-drag. That might be a fun idea for an app - something that produces a short animation of some kind of destruction (cat peeing, setting it on fire, shredding) and then moves the file to an archive folder.

Charging up her virtual flamethrower,

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Return of the 'Year of Writing a Damn Lot'?

So, I've been doing some thinking (about 6 pages worth of typewriter-hitting) and I've come up with a bit of a plan.

First of all, I've concluded that I'm stuck in my current project because the Necroverse is always a giant tangle. I still don't know what I want to do about that in particular, but as a general sort of thing I've decided it's time to pursue another 'Siana Blackwood's Year of Writing a Damn Lot' (this was my theme for 2011) and try to really make an impact on the Scary List of Scary. So, I've developed a sort of idea for how to work on chaos drafts (aka incomplete non-linear pantsing). The plan goes like this:

0. (For all projects, not just chaos drafts) Have a brief look at the current state of the project and construct a task list to get it to the end of the next major milestone (e.g. chaos draft → complete first draft, first draft → second draft). Some tasks will be generic, others specific to an individual project.

1. Write a general description of the story - who's in it, what their roles are, what stuff happens, where it happens and such. Basically, what I was talking about the other day as a 'starting package'.

2. Make a list of all the available 'random scenes' that fit (or could fit) into this story.

3. Rewrite the first scene so it properly fits the general description. This is probably several steps in one - find the scene, make notes on what I need to do, do the things. Might also involve expansions to the general description.

4. Repeat Step 3 for the next scene on the list from Step 2.

5. If the two scenes fit together sequentially, all is fine at this point. If not, then at this point I go back and work out a summary of what happens between the two scenes.

Then after that it's basically looping through steps 3, 4 and 5 until I get all the way to the end of the available material.

So, this is going to be the new... I don't know, Financial Year of Writing a Damn Lot? That sounds weird, but it's halfway through June and the financial year ticks over at the end of the month, so something like that might even make sense.

(PS: This could possibly become a new Steve the WriMo Forum challenge, if anyone is interested. )

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Blog Necromancy III: A Little Light Abandonment (or, Why I'm Reviving my Blog)

I'm feeling very lonely and isolated at the moment. The reason for this is probably simple and obvious: it's past midnight and I'm sitting alone in my room with a computer and some heavy metal for company. The heavy metal is The Malkuth Grimoire by Alkaloid, by the way. Since getting my current computer at the end of last year, this is my most frequently played album. Loud, musically complex heavy metal is a great way to distract myself from the ultimate futility of existence.

The thing about 'lonely and isolated' as a concept is that there are things I want to say, and mere alleviation of the physical state of loneliness isn't going to cut it. I've spent most of today with my family, working on some improvements to the kitchen. This involved demolishing an entire room, which was pretty cool. At any rate, I've talked to people, spent time interacting with them and so on. Now, though, sitting alone at the computer, I realise that there are things I want to say in a more specific context. I want to talk about writing.

Anyone who knows me from writing-related sites (Arrow of Eloquence, NaNoPlotMo, Steve the WriMo Forum, or in the unlikely event that I've managed to establish my existence on the Absolute Write forum), is likely to have an impression of me as... I don't really know how to describe it, but what I sort of mean is that even in the company of other writers I feel like I'm going off somewhere strange. As a student now, studying literature and creative writing, I'm finding the same thing happening there. We get weekly discussion questions, and I write my answer and post it, then find that everyone else in the thread is coming from a completely different direction. I think this is adding to my sense of isolation, knowing that the deeper I dig the less accepted I feel.

Because of this, I end up keeping things to myself. Why bother writing down a thought when I have nowhere to share it? Then, because I do my best thinking when I'm writing things down as I go, I end up not exercising those philosophical and introspective parts of my mind. Without those moments, I start to lose other things as well, which I think is what's happening to me right now. The lack of people to share weird thinking with means I'm not doing any weird thinking, and that seems to mean I can't do any weird writing.

So, I'm choosing what's probably the least effective method imaginable for trying to get back into the right mindset for creativity: I'm reviving my blog.