Thinking and Doing

This year was going to be the year I wrote all my A-Z posts ahead of time, and had them scheduled to appear by 06:00 every day. That was the plan. It fell apart when the time came to stop thinking and planning, and start acting.

And… I didn’t.

And so it got to be mid-April, and I was still floundering. I had just over two weeks to write nearly 30 blog posts, not to mention writing and editing my webnovel, ahead of the planned release of part one on May 3rd.

Now I have exactly one week to go, and I’m almost ready with the first post. I’ll be working at breakneck pace, writing and editing up to the wire for a good few weeks at least.

The plan was to have the whole thing written by the end of 2014. The plan was to spend March and April editing the manuscript and splitting it into post-sized pieces. The plan was to avoid stress.

It was a good plan. There was only one problem: I’m pants at following my own plans. This does not bode well for my attempts to have a career as a freelance writer.

Identifying a personal flaw carries mixed feelings. On the one hand, it hurts to acknowledge being less than perfect; on the other hand there is a sense of tremendous pride borne of being self-aware enough to see the flaws in the first place.

It goes something like this:

“I’ve maturely identified my problem – look at me being all grown up!”

 – Great. So, what now?

“What do you mean? Now I get to feel good about being mature. That’s it.”

 – How are you going to fix the problem?

“Fix it? Oh, come on. Nobody’s perfect, right? Isn’t knowing myself enough? How grown up am I supposed to be, anyway?”

 – Knowing yourself is the first step. There’s still a whole journey ahead. You can’t stop here.

“But…”

Yeah, I have parent-child conversations inside my own head. Doesn’t everyone?

So, how do I fix this one? Not by making another plan, that’s for sure. At least, not a grand, far-reaching one. For the last two weeks I’ve been making a list last thing at night of exactly what I need to do the next day. ONLY the next day, not next week, or next month, or next year. When I wake up, I review the list and pick something quick and easy that I can do at once. Then I do it.

This has worked well so far. Some days it has taken me longer than I would like to get to the first task, but each day has seen me accomplish something. Not as much as I would like, but then I could write 10,000 words, edit 5 chapters, and complete 3 in-depth reviews and still end the day wishing that I’d managed to fit in some music practice.

Because holding myself to impossible standards is another of my failings; albeit one I have decided to do absolutely nothing about.

After all, nobody’s perfect.

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Blue and Orange Morality

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Most characters in fiction can be classed as Good or Evil, or a complex mix of the two. Wherever they fall along the axis of morality, we can use the same basic parameters to describe their actions: selfish or philanthropic, bigoted or accepting, hateful or kind. It doesn’t take long to figure out the heroes and the villains.

But then along comes an outsider. Maybe an alien, maybe a member of a different species, or maybe just another human with a different mindset. For whatever reason, these characters live by their own code; and it’s utterly bizarre. This is a case of “Blue and Orange Morality”.

Introducing a whole new dimension

They are not amoral, nor acting out of a desire to shock. They simply have their own ideas about right and wrong, which do not map neatly onto ours. Often they are as confused by our moral code as we are by theirs, which can lead to drama, comedy, or even tragedy, depending on the story being told.

Done well, “Blue and Orange Morality” can hold up a mirror to our own world, questioning or reaffirming the moral standards that we take for granted. It can be used to show people with different values trying to find common ground, or even the misunderstandings that can occur when people assume that everyone has the same moral framework.

Done badly, it descends into “We’re right, you’re weird, they’re evil” – a disturbingly common theme. If the “Blue and Orange” mindset is portrayed as irrational, self-defeating, or otherwise untenable, then the whole story becomes a soapbox for proclaiming that anyone who disagrees with the author is wrong, and probably also insane.

Like most tropes, “Blue and Orange Morality” is hard to do well, but very rewarding when pulled off successfully. Follow the link (at your own risk) to see some examples of this trope in action.

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Averted and Inverted Tropes

A to Z challenge: letter AAs I said yesterday, tropes are not bad. However, they do create a level of reader expectation, to the point where a savvy reader can often tell where your story is going. So how do you keep the reader interested? Why not throw in a clever twist? Appear to be following the trope, then… WHAM! Trope averted!

And this can be very effective, especially in stories where suspense is key. However, unless you have genre-savvy characters, you will have to be careful to build a logical, in-story reason for averting the trope. Doing it just to be different is not enough, it has to fit the story.

The same principle applies to inverting or subverting tropes. Basically, all -versions should be handled with care. Done right, they can enhance the story wonderfully; done wrong, they break the narrative completely with a cry of, “Look at this writer being so clever!”

Ironically, an overused trope aversion becomes a trope in its own right – sometimes even a cliché. However, that’s a topic for another day.

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Back in the Saddle Again (Again)

Well, that plan didn’t last for long. It was mostly sound, I just didn’t manage my time well. Still, in the spirit of never giving up, I’m about to attempt another A-Z April. Because I’m stubborn like that.

Banner and link for "Blogging from A to Z: April" 2015This year’s theme is tropes, and there will be links to the TV Tropes website, which will serve as the source of most of the definitions. WARNING: TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life. Follow links at your own risk.

So, what is a trope? The dictionary gives this definition:

“A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression;
A significant or recurrent theme; a motif.

TV Tropes says:

“Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”

Tropes are not:

  • Clichés
  • A genre
  • Proof of bad writing
  • Proof of good writing

Tropes simply are. They emerge naturally in a culture, sometimes independently in several places at once. They show us what we were, what we are, and what we want to be. And, once seen, they can’t be unseen.

I repeat: TV Tropes will ruin your life. It’s not just a time-sink, it’s a gateway into a whole new way of looking at stories. Read on… if you dare.

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The Physical Writer

It’s the first Wednesday of the month, and time to talk about writing – literally. As writers, we spend a lot of time inside our own heads. We value our mental strength, the size of our imaginations; and are generally less concerned about being physically fit or impressive. The pen being mightier than the sword, we focus on exercising our brains, sometimes at the expense of our bodies.

All well and good but, like most things, this attitude can be taken too far. Just as the greatest athletes and body-builders need to train their minds, writers and artists need to take care of their bodies. After all, even if our stories live and grow in the mind, we need some way to communicate those stories to the physical world. Since brain-reading technology is still in its infancy, we rely on pens, keyboards and the like to bridge the gap between the minds of the writer and the reader.

Hello, hand cramp. Or, for those who prefer speech-to-text software, sore throats. Not to mention tight shoulders and lower back pain from poor posture; or eye-strain headaches from staring fixedly at unco-operative words day and night. The occupational illnesses of a writer are insidious, and tend to be things that we brush off lightly when we are young and fit. Well, spoilers: They still get you in the end. Caffine and pain-killers are the quick-fix solution, for when you are racing a deadline, or trying to work through a killer cramp. But it’s better to avoid the pain in the first place, if at all possible. A few small stretches and exercises throughout the day can work wonders.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER – PLEASE READ!!      

I am neither a doctor nor a trained physiotherapist. All I can do is share what I’ve been able to research, and say how well it works for me. If you have existing health trouble, or even an old injury, be sure to consult a professional before attempting the exercises in this post. And, EVEN IF YOU ARE IN GOOD HEALTH, take the stretches and exercises only as far as your body will allow.

Note: This is not an “office workout” – there are plenty of those available online if you’re interested. Most of these moves are not exercises at all, simply stretches. If you have the time, energy and inclination, then these stretches can lead into more vigorous exercises. However, they don’t have to. The idea is just to loosen up and prevent stiffness.

1. Wrists and hands

Hands and armsLift your hands from the keyboard and make a fist. Squeeze for a couple of seconds, then shake out both hands, making sure to stretch your fingers, and get plenty of movement in your wrists. Splay your fingers wide and hold for two seconds. Repeat at least twice.

2. Neck and shoulders

Head and ShouldersRoll your shoulders backwards to counter the effect of hunching over your desk. If you can, lift your arms and do a mid-air backstroke to really unwind your shoulder blades. Let your neck go with the movement, looking up and down, left and right. DO NOT roll your neck right round – stick with half-turns. Finally, shake out your arms, and tilt your head left and right, as if you were trying to touch your ears with your shoulders.

3. Back and legs…

Time to get up, and get down. Get up from your chair and lie down on the floor, flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Keeping your head, shoulders, and lower back firmly on the floor, and your knees together, twist your legs so that your knees are on your right side. Don’t pull a muscle by trying to push them further than they’ll go, just twist to the right, then the left. Make sure to keep your back still and flat. This should help undo any tension that builds up in your lower back.

If you can’t lie down (or don’t fancy your chances of getting up again without help) you can try a variation of this stretch that you do standing up in a doorway.

Back and LegsStand in the doorway with your back to the hinges, feet shoulder-width apart, looking at the door jamb. The door is there to give you a frame (hah) of reference, to make sure you don’t tip forwards or backwards. Twist your upper body, keeping one hand on the door jamb at all times. Don’t try to twist too far, just turn to gently stretch the muscles in your back. SLOWLY turn the other way. Repeat no more than four times.

Whichever stretch you do, take the long way back to your chair – give your legs a chance to move a bit.

4. Posterior…

No picture for this one, because it’s an invisible stretch (almost). Clench your buttocks like you were trying to hold off using the toilet, count to four and relax. Repeat as often as you remember. This is a great way to avoid stiffness in your hips, and prevent pressure from building on your tail bone.

5. Eyes…

Preventing Eye-strainEvery hour or so, close your eyes for thirty seconds, then open them and look at something as far away as you can. If you don’t have a line of sight on anything far away, then close your eyes again and imagine yourself stargazing, or bird-watching – anything to get your eyes to focus on distance, rather than close-up. This can help reduce eye-strain, and who knows? You might see something in the distance that inspires a new piece of writing!

6. Feet and Ankles…

Lift your feet from the floor and roll your ankles a few times, clockwise and anti-clockwise. If you can, hold both feet off the floor for a moment. This is another stretch that you can do without interrupting your writing.

For more stretches and exercises, see: http://www.wikihow.com/Exercise-While-Sitting-at-Your-Computer.

Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day, and eat healthily – which means different things for different people. There isn’t a “right way” to health and fitness, any more than there’s a “right way” to write a novel. It’s about finding your own style, and refining it. Following this advice won’t give you killer abs and toned thighs; that’s not the purpose of exercise for a writer. What it may do, though, is give you enough physical and mental energy to let your brilliant thoughts flow more easily from your brilliant mind to your brilliant prose, or poetry, or blog post.

May your writing be as painless as possible or, if there must be agonies, let them be of the creative soul, not the body.

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The (Revised) Plan

I had a plan. It was a good plan, and I was all set to follow it. Then life happened, and… yeah. Well, this is the last Wednesday – in fact, the last day – of 2014, so that makes it time for a look back (briefly) and a look ahead.

What Went Wrong

To quote my sponsor, Ember Rain, from Writing.Com:

“You went into this hoping you would win but not really expecting it.”

This pretty much sums up my entire year. I faced a lot of minor challenges, and each missed target sapped my energy for the next. I loaded all my failures onto my back and tried to take on yet another challenge – NaNoWriMo. My failure was not unexpected – and that’s the problem. As Ember Rain very kindly didn’t say, I set myself low targets and consistently failed to achieve them. With this model, failure is virtually guaranteed.

So, next year, my motto will be: “Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Of course, my brain – being the dangerous cynic that it is, immediately adds, “…or, you could fail to achieve escape velocity and burn up on re-entry”. Because my brain has no concept of when to shut up.

Last time, I also leapt into the plan with my posts outlined, but not written ahead of time. This was a mistake, and is the reason why most of next month’s posts have been written in the last week of December, needing only status updates and last-minute checks before they go out into the virtual world.

The New Schedule

As before, the plan is to update this blog every Wednesday, with a different theme for each week of the month, like so:

Week One: Writing
– Anything from SPaG mechanics to motivation tricks

Week Two: Reading
– A review or two of what I’m currently reading

Week Three: Story-telling
– In any medium, the principles of telling a good story remain the same

Week 4: Free day
– When there are five Wednesdays in a month, this is the “extra” day.

Last Week: Summary
– Look back, look ahead. Speaking of which…

January

Writing goals:

  • 2k new words per day
  • 6 hours editing per week
  • 3 hours research per week

Current projects: Fragments and Silver Tongue

Other goals:

Well, that’s the plan. Will it survive contact with the new year? Only time will tell. See you next Wednesday for some thoughts on writing.

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4.1 Building Outwards

RoW80 update, week one:

  1. Reviews written – None. Oops…
  2. NaNo Prep tasks – mostly done, although some of them are late entries
  3. Update this blog – done. Writing right up to the deadline, but here it is…

As it’s the second Wednesday of the month, it’s time for some writing advice. This month is about “building outwards”, a technique I’ve been using unconsciously for ages, but only recently tried to put into words.

Most stories begin with an idea – a theme, a scene, even a single image. As you work on the story, you will change many things, but that initial spark will probably remain almost intact. This is one of the story cores. The other core is the climax of your story. These two cores may be very close, or miles apart, yet between them they form the heart and soul of your story.

I’m currently outlining Silver Tongue, the tale of Long John Silver. My two cores are actually quite far apart, as they form the bookends of John’s adventures in piracy. The spark idea was “How did he become a pirate?” coupled with speculation on how and when he lost his leg. The climax of his story is the moment that he decides to save Jim and fight against his fellow pirates. With these two points as my anchors, I can build a coherent arc for John’s actions, beliefs and behaviour. But even though my cores come towards the edges of my narrative, I’m still “building outwards” when I use them as anchors. I need to establish John’s early life, before he became a pirate, or even went to sea. I also need to show where he went after he disappeared from the Hispaniola, and how his decision changed him. Then comes the really difficult bit – bridging the gap between the two core moments. I need to make every point on the arc as smooth as possible; every change needs to feel at least plausible, preferably inevitable.

Timeline showing the two core moments of "Silver Tongue"

I’m outlining this novel using a mixture of the NaNo Prep calendar and a modified version of the Snowflake Method. I’ve also looked into the three-, four- and five-act structures, as well as “phases” and the “Three Acts, Nine Blocks, 27 Chapters” template. Building outwards isn’t a method of outlining as such, nor is it intended to take the place of any of these existing guides. Instead, it suggests a starting place within these structures, and that starting place isn’t necessarily the beginning (or the end) of the story.

I have to admit, I’m not an exclusive fan of any one method of outlining. Each story is different, and as such needs a slightly different approach. If you want to see vehement defenders in actions, search for “compare three four five act structure” (without the quotes), and watch as each advocate tears the other methods to pieces. Then make up your own mind.

I find it useful to run the first stage of a few different outlining methods on any new story. Once I’ve spent a couple of hours doing that, the best fit is usually obvious. By identifying the anchor points, I can usually make a broad-brush outline quite easily, then find the right structure to help me fill in the details.

Over to you guys – how do you get into a new story? Do you make it all up as you go, or do you plan in advance? Comments are open.

Posted in Fiction, The Art and the Craft, Writing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

RoW80 Round Four Goals

 photo ROW80Badge.jpg
Hi, people. RoW80 is about to launch the final round of 2014, and that means getting my act together and deciding on my goals of this quarter.

  1. Update this blog every Wednesday, with the following monthly schedule.
    • Week 1 = Recommended read (free online)
    • Week 2 = Writing advice
    • Week 3 = Recommended read (to buy)
    • Week 4 = Look back, look ahead
    • Week 5 (occasional) = Original story or poem

    With a good buffer, I should be able to keep to this update schedule.

  2. Outline and write the first draft of Silver Tongue

    Silver Tongue will then be put aside for editing, sometime in the spring.

  3. Review at least one piece a week over at Writing.Com
    • Start with the people who have sent me reviews
    • Then, look for review requests (listed on the front page)

Reviews on other sites, and comments on blogs, are encouraged, but not required for this goal.

As well as participating in RoW80, I have listed these goals over at WDC as part of their “Slave Drivers” challenge. I’ll be reporting my successes and failures there every week, as well as here. I’ll also be posting my responses to the NaNo Prep challenge in my WDC portfolio.

As this is the first Wednesday in the month, here is my recommended free-to-read fiction: Heavenly Nostrils. This charming newspaper-style comic chronicles the adventures of young Phoebe and her unicorn friend, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. The two of them take turns to hold the maturity baton, each having her own foibles and predicaments. Phoebe’s parents, school friends (and enemies) make regular appearances, and we get to meet a few of Marigold’s friends and relations along the way. Read the current strip, or go through the archives from the beginning.

Enjoy! See you next Wednesday.

Posted in Blogging, Challenges | Tagged , , ,

I never said WHICH Wednesday…

Hi! How’s July treating you? It’s the time of year for extremes, either hot or cold, so I hope you’re all coping. I’ve spent most of the last ten days in front of a fan, drinking water by the litre, and generally trying to work without dying of heat stroke.

Speaking of work, I’d better report on my RoW80 progress. Pretty good, although not brilliant. I’ve written something every day (not 1,500 words, but still something), and submitted “The History of Haplow House” to my first agent. I’m preparing the letter for the second one now. Meanwhile, my Duolingo streak stands at 50+ days, and I’ve been getting more involved with my local writers’ groups. The only thing I haven’t managed is online reviews; I’ve even stayed on top of my email (just about!)

I had to adjust my Camp Nanowrimo goal in order to avoid abject failure, but since I’ve been editing as well I feel that 16k of a new novel is still a decent achievement. It looks like I’ll be spending the rest of the summer getting “Fragments” written, before moving on to “Silver” as my 2014 NaNovel. I’ll edit “Fragments” in January, and hopefully be able to start posting it here in February or March.

Yes, I’ll be posting a story for free on my blog for all you lovely people who have been so encouraging in your comments, likes and follows. By the time I post the first scene, I’ll have the draft written and edited, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be taking your feedback into account. Getting honest, helpful criticism from readers is how I improve as a writer – although I reserve the right to ignore flames and trolls.

I’ll tell you more about the story as we get closer to launch. That’s still five or six months away – which is good, because I haven’t finished writing it yet!

 

Posted in Challenges, Fiction, Getting published, Prose, Writing | Tagged , ,

RoW80 Round Three Goals

I read Kait Nolan’s post for today, and it triggered a train of thought that has been lurking in my hind brain for a while. It took some time for me to get a good enough hold on the thought to pin in down to words, but it eventually yielded this: If you don’t value your own work, nobody else will.

I don’t mean that you have to be an evil diva and declare yourself the greatest artist since the dawn of time, but you do need to recognise what is good about your creations, not just what is bad. If you are putting your work out there, whether to sell or for free on the internet, you can’t be timid about it. Saying “I’m afraid it’s not very good,” won’t make strangers say, “Oh, I’m sure it is really!” They are much more likely to say, “Oh, it isn’t? I won’t bother with it then.” The open market is not the best place to fish for compliments; people are choosing where to spend their money and/or time, and most of them aren’t too bothered about pandering to an artist’s ego.

To use a concrete example: I know someone who makes beautiful, hand-sewn bags, often with matching scarves or other accessories. She has tried selling them at various craft fairs, but never had a very good response. Her reaction to this was to bring the prices down, but she still didn’t sell many – and she was effectively working for free once she’d covered the cost of the materials. I have tried to persuade her to price the bags higher, but she is sure that it will simply put people off. I eventually went to a shop in town and bought a handmade bag, very similar to the kind she makes. It is small and simple, and (frankly) not quite as good as hers, yet it was priced the same as a high street handbag. I’m going to take this bag, complete with price tag, and show it to my friend just to prove that you can – and should – sell things for what they’re worth. Since I know she’ll need some convincing, I’m going to test out my reasoning on you guys.

  1. If you price your stuff too low, people are going to wonder what’s wrong with it.
  2. It might be a labour of love, but making things is still labour, and you’ve got to live.
  3. Your product (and your time, skills and brilliance) are valuable, and the price should reflect that.

OK, I lied. This line of reasoning is for my friend, but it’s also for me. Because I am just as guilty as any other writer, artist or designer when it comes to undervaluing and apologising for my own work. Looking back through my April posts, and my attempts at poetry, I find over and over variations on “I’m not very happy with this one,” or “It’s not a very good poem,” sometimes even within the poems themselves! If I’m going to convince my friend to value her own work, then I need to set a good example. My RoW80 round three goals therefore are:

  • Write at least 1,500 words a day (This should get “Fragments” finished)
  • Review a least two pieces a week (one online and one at my writers’ group)
  • Answer letters and emails within three days of receipt (even if it’s just a brief acknowledgement)
  • Contact one agency a week with “The History of Haplow House”.

AND…

  • Stop putting myself down. (At least in public. My inner critic is probably here to stay)

That’s it. Thanks for reading and commenting on this sporadic and rambling piece of nonsense I call a blo– er, I mean, See you Wednesday for the first check-in!

Posted in Blogging, Challenges, Writing