Category Archives: Personal writing

I’ve been horribly negligent of my blog this month

But it’s all about to change, honest. I’ve got a few reviews coming up in July, for starters. A couple of authors have been waiting a while for me to get to reviewing them, for which I apologise, but I will be posting reviews in the next few weeks.

Today’s post is a general update about what I’m doing at the moment.

I have a problem. I can waste hours at a time in a WHSmith or Waterstones branch, or even in a supermarket or on Amazon, admiring notebooks, caressing their covers and assessing their features. About ten months ago this is how I occupied my time when I reached my fiance’s workplace early to pick him up: I went to the stationary section of his store and talked myself into buying a notebook. It wasn’t expensive – about £3. Simple and smart: a black cover made of a smooth matt substance, with a black elastic strip to hold it closed and, poking out the bottom, a black bookmark ribbon. Inside the pages were pale cream, medium lined with slightly thicker lines at the very top and bottom of the page, as if framing it.

I bought it, and then I didn’t use it.

The problem with particularly nice notebooks is that I am scared to write in them. What if I mess it up? What if I stop writing after a few pages and don’t use it again? I must save it for something special!

A week ago I finally started. A discussion on Reddit asked writers whether they often write by hand. I have in the past – three quarters of the notebook my former colleagues gave me as a leaving present contains the notes and first draft for a story I really should finish typing up. That gift, in turn, was inspired by a project I’d been working on shortly before that which ended up taking two and a half notebooks. But for the last year and a half I have almost exclusively written on my computer, resorting to notebooks (cheap wire-bound notebooks of the kind in which I am quite happy to intersperse story notes with shopping lists, interview notes and crochet project calculations) only when I was babysitting in the evenings, and thus cut off from my PC.

The discussion was well-timed for me. I was unhappy with the story I’d been writing – with, specifically, the third restart of it. I’d barely written 200 words a day on that project for the whole previous week. I needed something new, and I needed to change more than the story. I needed to change my process too. I needed to step away from the computer and refocus.

Back in January I started writing something in response to a prompt suggesting a stone age level of technology. But at the time I was temping full time and working my part time job too, and I didn’t have the time or mental energy to get far with it. I picked it up again earlier this month, which I think was the perfect time: the news here in the UK since the General Election has been busy, to say the least, and a few of the things that have happened already had parallels in my story. With the political situation around the election and Grenfell fire fresh in my mind, I opened my new ten-month-old notebook and started working through what I wanted in the story. I wrote pages of notes.

One morning I got up early, made some coffee in my thermos flask and went for a walk down to the river. I found a bench with a nice view and sat drinking coffee, writing, and petting every passing dog.

After a week of writing notes, I began writing the story. It’s slow going – I handwrite at about a third the speed that I type at, and for all my notes it’s still difficult to actually write the story while I’m still getting into it. I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, but the story might well be half finished before July starts, and then it’s a matter of finishing it, typing it up and editing it.

So that’s where I am at the moment: excited about a story, and freed from my PC so I can go and write down by the river (weather permitting – it’s forecast to rain heavily tomorrow, more’s the pity) or in my favourite cafe.

A recent disappointment with a job application has given me fresh resolve, so while I have the time I’m going to dedicate more time to writing, blogging, reading, researching, plotting, proofreading and learning – not to mention walks down to the river while the weather is nice. I’ve created a new schedule, a rather busy schedule, that I will begin tomorrow, which dedicates about six hours per day (except when I’m working) to working on all those things I just listed. Not including walks to the river: there’s another hour and a half set aside for those.

So today I am infused with a fresh energy, a fresh determination, and a new plan. This post is a promise that you’ll see at least some of it right here on my blog.

Camp NaNoWriMo April 2017: I restarted my story

On Monday I decided I wasn’t happy with what I’d written so far this month and scrapped it to start again (though I’m still counting my earlier wordcount towards the month’s total).

The main problem with the story as I’d written it was that my protagonist, Fiarra, wasn’t making the decisions. Things were happening, and she was reacting to them. Not just reacting, but reacting in a passive manner – watching and waiting, not deciding to take action. It made the story boring. It made her boring. And it created a contradiction in her character, because my goal at this stage of the story is to have her at odds with others in the group, and she was just getting on with her work while being disdainful about gossip and small talk.

If I’m honest, it was obvious that the story wasn’t working several days before I decided to restart. I attempted to make it work by giving her more decisions, but I’d already put her on a path of passivity and it was hard to get her off that.

So I went back to the start and thought about how things might have reached the stage they need to be at the start of the story to get where I want to go. One of the important aspects of Fiarra in the Pact – a coalition of about a hundred people who have secured territory in the abandoned town of Royal Newport in the aftermath of the eruptions and evacuation – was that she felt that she didn’t fit in. But if that’s the case, why is she there at all? Why has she joined this group? The original version had her living in a former inn, along with several other members of the Pact, and a friendship with Pact leader Embry that dated to after the Pact had been formed.

I scrapped this background, and decided that the Pact had begun in Fiarra’s street, right outside her own house, and that she had met Embry during the crisis. With Fiarra living in her own home, there’s a stronger contrast between the familiarity of the house and the street she grew up in, and the strangers that have arrived there to join the Pact, who have now moved into the homes of Fiarra’s deceased neighbours.

Her role in the origin of the Pact also enables me to give her an independent, even anti-authoritarian streak – not taking part in communal tasks or adhering to curfews – that Embry allows her a certain amount of leeway on. And that in turn means that when she hears rumours about someone she used to know, she can act upon them instead of sitting alone thinking about the nature of loss in the context of a volcano having killed almost everyone she knew only a few months earlier.

I wonder if this is evidence I didn’t do enough planning in the first place. I certainly didn’t plan for Fiarra to be passive in the first two chapters, but that’s how it turned out. I think perhaps the process of writing it enabled me to identify what the problem was and how best to fix it; if I had done more planning work back in March perhaps I would have noticed that Fiarra was too passive, but I don’t think I would have come up with the same solution, and I may have ended up with other problems instead.

As I continue to attempt to refine and improve my process for writing, this is something that I will have to consider.

Plotting for Camp NaNoWriMo

This week has been all about plotting. Last year when I was working on Horrible Monster, I was rather hands-off with plotting: I had a general idea of where I wanted things to go, and a few key scenes, but the rest was left to be worked out as I was writing.

The problem with that was that I slowed down hugely when I didn’t know where things were going, and on several occasions struck out pages and pages – days’ worth of writing – when I decided I didn’t like what I’d written. And now I’m left with a first draft that needs a mountain of work doing to it before it’s even close to completion.

For the Volcano Island project I’m working on this April for Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided I need to do a lot more planning.

A few times over the last decade or so, I’ve attempted the Snowflake method. It’s a process of planning where you start with a very condensed summary of the story and the protagonist, and expand upon these summaries with every step, going from a sentence to a paragraph to a page by adding detail and nuance. In general, I’ve found it a bit rigid and stale when I’ve followed it exactly, but I think the general principle is sound.

With the Volcano Island project, I think I’ve got three stories there. Maybe more, but I can’t think that far in advance at the moment. I wrote very brief summaries of the three stories, and I have expanded upon the first by breaking the overall plot down into chapters and outlining those, as well as the protagonist’s personal journey, in about a paragraph each.

I have now started writing longer chapter summaries, one page each in my A5 notebook (so roughly 100-130 words per chapter), and I think this will be as far as I go for plot. For character, though, I might go to three or four A5 pages, at least for Fiarra, the protagonist, and Macky, the second most important character, plus a page each for another five or six characters.

Striking a balance with planning is important to me. I’ve done too little in the past; but when I do too much I soon tire of the project. I’m hoping this level of planning will be just right to give me the structure I need without sapping my passion for the project.

Attempting Camp NaNoWriMo

In April I will be attempting Camp NaNoWriMo. I’ve signed up, added my novel details and set my cabin preferences. My target is 30,000 words and the story I’ll be working on is a fresh attempt at the Penal Colony story I was working on way back in 2013.

There’s still a lot to do before April 1st, though. In the past I’ve tried to “pants” various NaNoWriMo challenges – to write with minimal preparation, flying by the seat of my pants (or trousers, since I’m British). It doesn’t work for me; I get so far and don’t know where to go next, and end up dithering around with long conversations between characters, or meaningless sequences of events that I later delete once I’ve made a decision about the direction I want to go. That was the downfall of Kell’s Adventures and Kell & Atoni: no direction and no plan.

But I’ve also not found much success with an outlining-heavy approach. I get bored of going over the minutiae of characters or the world, or I feel I’ve covered the plot in so much detail in the plan that I don’t need or want to write it anymore because there’s nothing more I can add. It becomes a chore. There’s no exploration, no discovery, no fun to it. And what’s the point if it’s not fun to write, at least some of the time?

With Horrible Monster, I took a middle ground. It was, perhaps, rather too much on the pantsing side of the scale – there were passages thousands of words long, covering multiple scenes, which I removed, and started again from a point I’d written a week or longer earlier. As for the ending, I hadn’t made a decision about that until literally a week before I finished the novel.

So with this story I’ll be doing more planning than I did for Horrible Monster, including working out the ending and writing chapter summaries. In order to distinguish this version from the 2013 version in my file system, I’ll be using a new working title – Volcano Island. A huge amount has changed, including most of the key characters (though I’ve kept the protagonist and a couple of other characters) and the plot. I see the original Penal Colony plot as being potentially the foundation for a sequel, if I get that far, but it’s not the story I want to tell right now, and the story I do want to tell needs to happen earlier in the chronology.

On my to-do list for the rest of this month, I have:

  • Draw maps showing the islands before and after the major eruptions – while the story takes place after most of the eruptions, I want an idea of where there used to be land, towns, ports and other features as my characters will encounter buried buildings and so on. I’m also considering having an eruption during the story, so I’d like to map out how that changes the islands too.
  • Create characters lists to draw upon when needing to use less developed/important characters – I’ve decided on the names and a few characteristics of my main cast, but there will be other characters involved too. I’ll need to sort them into groups, create short descriptions of them and have them ready to put into action when I need them so I don’t have to make this stuff up when I’m writing, and potentially lose flow.
  • Create a more detailed chapter-by-chapter summary. I’ve already got a very brief chapter outline, with about 2 lines of text per chapter describing the main events. I want to expand this into about 150-200 words per chapter, plus a list of the immediate goals and motives of the characters in the chapter to help me with interactions.

There’s plenty to be getting on with, but not so much it can’t be done by the end of March.

Quick general update for 2017

I know, I’ve been radio silence for a while. It’s been a hectic time involving job hunting, job doing, Christmas, bereavement, house sitting, being ill, studying and more in the weeks since I last posted. This is not a thorough update, but rest assured that I have:

  • Continued to write daily since my last update
  • Read some more books since my last update, though not as many as I planned

I intended to post an update on my writing progress, and an end-of year post about what I’ve been reading, last month. I obviously didn’t get to them but something along those lines will probably be forthcoming once things settle back down again.

I also wanted to set out my goals for 2017, both in terms of reading and writing. I shall do that now.

Reading Goals 2017

In 2016 I managed probably more than 30 books, smashing my 26 book goal, but I didn’t quite manage the 50% female authors goal, I don’t think. I’d have to check, but I don’t think I got there. So this year that goal is back, and the book total goal is going up to 39, which is 3 books per 4 weeks – half way between 26 and 52.

Writing Goals 2017

I still intend to write daily, and work towards that million word mark, but for 2017 I want to be more focused on improving and on finishing. This will manifest in two key ways:

  1. Finish “Horrible Monster”. I’ve got a first draft, and now I need to turn that into something more polished. I made a couple of false starts with a second draft in the first week of this year, but really I need to go back, reread what I’ve written, and create a chapter outline.
  2. Improve my writing by studying others’ writing. This will focus on 12 books – one per month – which I have already read and want to understand better. Each month I will copy out an extended passage from that month’s book (a chapter, for example) by hand into an A4 notebook, specifically the right hand page, leaving the left page to make notes about what I observe in the process of copying. Authors will include Austen, Tolkien, Gemmell, Rowling, Wynne-Jones, O’Brian and more.

And I dare say this will manifest itself in the occasional blog post to highlight what I’m learning along the way.

Progress Report: One Million Words, Autumn 2016

I’ve been a bit lax on updates lately, but I’m here to catch up now.

My current total is 307,504/1,000,000, or 30.8%. So I’m nearly a third of the way there now. Since my last update some time ago, I have written:

  • September: 13,776 words
  • October: 14,822 words
  • November: 15,812 words
  • December until the 10th: 3,195 words

The Story

Over the last three and a bit months, I’ve worked on a range of stories, including time travel fanfiction (that’s not a typo where I missed a comma, that’s a fanfiction involving a time travelling character from the modern world ending up on a British naval hired vessel in 1813; followers of my reading updates can guess exactly which ship that might have been), preparatory stories to help me get into the world and characters of Kell and Atoni, and my NaNoWriMo project, Kell & Atoni.

It is this latter which I wish to talk about.

It’s crap. I restarted it in the middle of November (don’t worry, I still counted the words I’d written). And I’m not happy with the restart either. I’ve been trying to work out why that might be today, and I think I have an answer: lack of preparation. Or at least, the right kind of preparation. I’ve got no outline, no theme, no goal for this story except to write a fantasy story in the same stylistic tradition as the Aubrey-Maturin novels, with a friendship much like that model at its core.

But it’s clear I need a more structured approach than I have been using. For now, I’m putting the project aside while I develop not only that structure, but also a deeper understanding of what I want from the story and the source material I wish to emulate. I also need to better develop the characters. At the moment they are barely distinguishable from any protagonist I’ve ever written, and it’s clear to me now that I have a significant weakness in that area.

Moving forward

I’ve got a short project planned in response to a challenge on /r/fantasywriters, so I’ll be working on that for at least a few days this month. The challenge is to use a stone age setting, which is something I’ve played with for a while but never quite got anything working (including one story in which Kell discovered a stone circle used by mammoths as scratching posts). So if nothing else I’ll have fun.

Beyond that, I need to work on exercises that enable me to develop the characters of Kell and Atoni and practice writing their voices.

I’m feeling rather lost with my writing at the moment, but it’s about time I got back on track so I’ll be working hard in the near future to move forward. Funny, I always seem more motivated with hobbies when I have less time for them, and the same is true now – I’ve got a temp job that just started which is full time, in addition to my existing part time job, and of course with Christmas fast approaching I’ve got a lot to sort out in the way of gifts and cards and decorations. So we’ll see how that goes.

I’m attempting NaNoWriMo

Yes, I get it, Halloween is a bit late to decide this. It’s fine, I decided weeks ago. I even planned out a few “leading up to” blog posts I would post over the last two weeks. It’s just things have been pretty busy lately and unfortunately that has meant blogging has taken the hit as being pretty far down the priorities list. Job hunting, dealing with a car that keeps breaking down, feeding my parents’ cat while they’ve been away, and various other pressing issues have taken precedence.

Anyway, I will be attempting NaNoWriMo. I will be writing a story based on last year’s NaNoWriMo, but with some significant changes. Here’s a blurb:

Since the great city of Caer burned and Kell did not in spite of being in the middle of it, and subsequently being saved from a mob by a man magically bound to the Brown River and somehow part of it, she’s been looking for others like her, others touched by magic. Leaving Shen to search along the banks of his river, Kell has crossed an immense plain to reach the White River, hoping to find another like Shen there, or at least someone who has heard of others like her.

Atoni is a princess, one of many nieces and nephews of the king of Porroa, and like all her siblings and cousins, she has a role in the structure of the family and government of Porroa: the Deputy Minister for Architecture and Construction. Her uncle the King wants to build the greatest monument the world has ever seen, but with the arrival of a lone traveller from the Brown River it’s clear that the world is a great deal bigger than anyone in Porroa ever realised. Atoni is sent on a mission to record the greatest monuments of the Brown River cultures, and establish initial diplomatic relations with any she feels Porroa could trade with, so that her uncle’s ambitions can be fulfilled and her own legend can begin.

When Kell and Atoni team up, they are ready for the adventures and travels that await them.

Progress Report: One Million Words, August 2016

Another late one; I’m slipping. I apologise. I have lots of excuses (it’s been a tough month) but I won’t bother relating them. Suffice it to say things aren’t working lately. Excuses aside, I need to keep better track of things, or I find I’ve got weeks worth of writing log to catch up on and have to work out what day I wrote what through a combination of dates in file names, dates on pieces of paper, and where dates don’t exist, a process of elimination. Not the best approach, I admit.

So for August I wrote 17,315 words. That brings me to 259,899 words in total, or 26%. August’s output was a modest improvement upon July’s, but it’s still below where I really want to be. I have continued to write daily and my total as of the end of August is 410 consecutive days.

I finished Horrible Monster at the start of August and then proceeded to write some short stories of various lengths, as planned. Some were related to my next project and others were based on prompts I found online or other ideas.

Kell & Atoni

My next project has the working title of Kell & Atoni. It builds upon my plans from last year for Kell’s Adventures, using the protagonist from that as one of my protagonists in the new project, but I wanted to take it in a different direction. Anyone who has been following my reading updates might have noticed I’ve been working my way through the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, and it is from that series that I draw upon in attempting, with Kell & Atoni, to tell a series of stories in which two characters become firm friends and travel together as they seek to achieve their own goals which are compatible with one other.

So far I’ve done a little worldbuilding and worked on a few short stories set before these two characters meet. I’m not yet ready to begin with the story proper, but with November approaching I feel that this is a project to tackle for NaNoWriMo, which gives me a few more weeks to prepare.

The plan for Kell & Atoni is for novella-length stories exploring their goals, their world, the directions their obligations, fears and ambitions take them in, and the human and magical obstacles they face. In preparation, I have begun workign on, and will continue to write, short stories exploring points of the protagonists’ lives before they meet, elements of the world and the cultures they are part of or encounter.

Progress Report: One Million Words, July 2016

I didn’t quite finish Horrible Monster in July. I still haven’t a week into August, but I am close. In total, I wrote 14,084 words in July – somewhat less than previous months, showing a slowdown.

My total as of the end of July was 242,584/100,000, or 24.3% – very nearly a quarter of the way to the million words. On July 18th I reached another milestone: I had written every single day for one year. Not one day missed, not Christmas Day, not New Year’s Day, not my birthday, not the days I worked 16 hours or drive 200 miles. So I’m pretty damn proud of that.

The Story

Horrible Monster is so close to the ending now. I struggled for a week or two exactly how I would get there and which direction I would take that ending, and I have finally made a decision; now it’s only a matter of writing it, and it shouldn’t take long. A few thousand words only.

So what happens to Horrible Monster after I finish the first draft? I don’t know. Recently I’ve been in the “oh god, it’s awful, I hate it” part. I’m not sure if it can stand up. It certainly can’t in its unedited state, and if there is something there worth keeping it is going to take an awful lot of work to get it up to that level. And editing work being the kind I tend to put off doesn’t bode well. I think it’s a “we’ll see” scenario. I’ll give it a few months and see if I feel the core story is worth the editing and rewriting that would be required.

I’ve got a new project lined up. It’s a new version of Kell’s Adventures, with some major changes, the introduction of a second protagonist, Atoni, moving the location of where I will begin, and much more. But it isn’t ready to begin yet. I’ve got a lot of character work and worldbuilding to sort out before it goes anywhere. My approach for this project will be to know the characters and know the world – and then let the plot take me where it will.

In the meantime, I think I’ll work on shorter projects. Prompt-inspired short stories, perhaps a rewrite of Mountain Story, and episodes from the lives of Kell and Atoni from before the start of their story together.

Progress Report: One Million Words, June 2016

A bit of a slow down this month, thanks to a number of factors, from catching a cold (in June! Damn weather.) to being very busy and being stressed about what I am now calling The Event (and doing my darnedest to ignore now).

I managed 16,159 words in June, for an average of 538.6 words per day.

This brings my total to 228,500/1,000,000, or 22.9%.

If I can hit 25%, or 250,000 words, by mid July, I’ll be on track to complete the entire million words within four years. It’s a bit of a stretch as there’s more to go to reach that than I have written in most entire months, but it does show just how much I have done – and how much there is to go.

The Story

I’m still working on Horrible Monster, working through towards completion of the novel. I had thought, this time last month, that I was on the home straight, but the story has taken a little bit of a turn and I’m uncertain about whether I like the new character, whether the story is best served by his inclusion, and how his presence is going to affect the ending.

I am seriously wondering if I’ve muddied the waters with some of the plot lines and whether it is quite how I want to tell this story, but I can’t quite see how the “extra” plot lines could be cut without significant impact on the rest of it. On some levels I worry that the story is too simplistic, too serendipitous even.

But at the same time I wonder if I am just worrying over nothing, letting the self-doubt creep in, and if I just need to finish the novel before I can make a true assessment of its merits and weaknesses. After all, when I took part in long distance hikes – a local charity walk of 22 miles – it was always around mile 16-17 that the pain was worst, my pace at its slowest, but once I got to mile 21 and the end was in sight I always had more energy and better pace, and the pain seemed to fade into irrelevance.

Looking forward into July

I don’t know if I will finish Horrible Monster in July. It is possible, especially if I speed up in the final mile. I’m nearly at 70,000 words, and with the amount of plot that’s left it might end up around 85-95,000 words total, so it is entirely likely I will finish it.

I will shortly have a lot more time on my hands. Today was my last day at one of my two part time jobs, and I haven’t got another lined up to replace it yet. By about the end of next week a huge number of outstanding tasks that haven’t yet been completed, or in some cases started, will be done. If it takes me a while to sort another job, I’ll have a lot more time to write and to engage in the kinds of activities that assist writing, like going for walks, reading, and taking the time to appreciate the moment – which, I’ll admit, I haven’t done much of lately. Then there’s researching, learning and blogging too, all of which I’ll have more time for.

So it may well be that July ends up a particularly productive month regarding writing fiction, blog posts and poetry; reading, researching and studying; and maintaining my flat to a standard that would pass a landlord inspection.