Category Archives: writing

The world and the World

There are times when what’s going on in the world is difficult to face. I won’t list the numerous things happening in the world over the last year that have contributed to my lower moods, and more personal events have caused stress too. This post isn’t about the causes, it’s about how different worlds help alleviate those feelings.

Part of why I write is as an escape from the real world. Stepping into a world I control, where I know the answers, or at least where I have the time and space to work out the answers, is massively valuable for my mental health.

But my ability to write also reflects my mental wellness: at my best, I can work through the thorny problems, get fully invested in the scenes I’m writing, and finish a writing session feeling like I’ve achieved something. At my worst, I am distracted, lost, barely able to articulate the problems with the story, much less solve them, and struggle to write even a paragraph of notes.

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There are other worlds it is easy to get lost in. Worlds created by others, which I need only navigate, without risk of feeling embarrassment, isolation or helplessness. Worlds where I can build relationships by following a clear, well-understood set of rules. Where I can defeat tyranny by completing pre-determined objectives. Where I can craft beautiful spaces using the resources I can find in the world and a little imagination. Such worlds are an easy escape, a welcome reprieve, but ultimately they are not enough.

At the moment, with my writing, I’m stuck in a loop. I’ve got a well-defined final act with a hazy ending, and a few important plot points which I have a strong grasp on, but beyond that it’s much more nebulous. I alternate between rewriting the scenes I feel most invested in, while simulaneously trying to work out what they will ultiamtely lead to, and making notes about how I need to focus on the earlier acts, the vast open gaps in my mental outline. This is fairly standard for me, a familiar if dangerous stage in my process; a whirlpool I can get sucked into, going round and round until I drown in it all and give up. I want to work out this story, but when I sit down to work on it I’ve run out of energy or time to really give it what it needs, and end up repeating an earlier day’s work in different words or with a minor tweak. But energy seems so hard to come by. I’m tired and hungry after work, then I lose track of time, and before I know it the evening is almost gone and I’ve got to rush to write something – and complete a couple of Italian lessons on Duolingo – in order to get to bed at a halfway decent time to get enough sleep before getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning to do it all over again.

Something has to change.

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This is the way the world works. You get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, relax for a bit, spend time with loved ones, sleep, repeat. And it wears you down. At least, it wears me down, and I know I’m not the only one. Writing is me-time. Playing games is me-time. But recently, I’ve spent too little of my me-time working on the periphery of writing.

Writing, as a skill, as a passion, as a pastime, isn’t an unconnected activity. It doesn’t stand apart from the rest of my life any more than a tree in a forest is sequestered from its neighbours. When the autumn comes and their leaves fall to the ground, each tree does not gain nutrients only from the rotting remnants of its own leaves. Such are the activities of a writer’s life. But lately I’ve got into a routine of doing what is easiest and what’s necessary, and avoiding everything in between. I’ve barely been reading. I’ve not spent much time with friends. I’ve stayed indoors and slept rather than going out and doing things.

This story I’m writing requires a lot of emotional energy. In essence, it is built around my own struggles with undiagnosed autism, and how that has manifested in the interactions I have had throughout my life, my relationships with family, friends, coworkers and authority figures. Part of the reason I have avoided the first act of the story is because of the parallels between the fictional situation my protagonist is in, and the real situation I was in a little over a year ago. It is still raw and difficult for me to understand, so using it as a guide, writing an analogue in which Kell will experience many of the same feelings of confusion, abandonment, shame and helplessness that I felt, is really hard for me to do.

The real world both inspires and disrupts my writing with the very same events.

The solution continues to elude me, but I’m working on it. I need to do more of the things that connect me to the world – the real world – that I have allowed to fall by the wayside. Today I took a walk down to the river and sat there, reading a book called The Wild Remedy by Emma Mitchell, which is about exactly that: taking time in nature to help boost mood and reconnect with yourself. This ties into some things my therapist said too: to take the time to appreciate the little things. The sun through the leaves, the earthy smell of the undergrowth, watching dogs bound about disturbing the moths and hunting tennis balls. The soft quacking of ducks. The variety of types of grasses in the unmown patches. That’s what I spent an hour this evening doing: walking, looking, listening, sitting, reading, feeling, noticing, appreciating. Being.

The photos in this post are from that walk.

A single walk by the river doesn’t solve a plot problem, and it certainly doesn’t create plot where I have left a blank. And it’s not the only thing I want to try. But I think it’s been a good start, for me and for my writing.

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The constant process of revision

Before I launch into today’s blog post: sorry. Yeah, long time since I last posted. It’s been a busy year and the blog has not been my priority, or anything close to it. I’ve got a few things to say, and I’ve read a few things I want to talk about, so that’s likely to change now. Starting with this.

In 2008 I attempted NaNoWriMo for the second time ever, and succeeded. The story I wrote was called Flame Undying, and it was about an immortal character with an affinity to fire who returned, after a decade, to the city he once ruled. That year, NaNoWriMo had a promotion with a print-on-demand service such that winners – people who successfully wrote 50,000 words in November – could get a free printed proof of their novel if submitted in time. I took advantage of that offer, and still have the proof copy.

The concept of immortals was one I had developed for a previous story, based on a sort of magical force being generated by belief, fear, awe, hope and other emotions about particular parts of the worlds – geographical features, human traits, concepts and ideals. My first immortals were the Four Horsemen – Death, War, Famine and Pestilence – but the concept quickly grew, to include River Guardians, Mountain Walkers, Fate, representatives of the four seasons, and, ultimately, Fire. Coupled with a couple of months hearing Coldplay’s Viva La Vida on the radio constantly at my summer job, I developed the story of Blaze, the immortal who “used to ruuuule the world”, to quote Chris Martin.

This was followed by a prequel story, The General’s Secret, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog. I became obsessed with the story, writing literally dozens of versions of some scenes in my attempts to get it right. But ultimately, I had to drop it. I couldn’t make it work. And for years it sat untouched as I worked on other ideas, other stories.

I had a backstory for Blaze: he was a bronze-worker in the Bronze Age, who became immortal as a result of dying in a fire and being taken over by the magic. The fire that killed him, and all of his people, was started by raiders from a city called Caer, which later burned down too.

Gradually I returned to this concept, but I knew it was time for a major overhaul. For starters, I wanted a female protagonist, and I wanted her story to be closer to the start, not when she was two thousand years old. In 2015 I started working on Kell’s Adventures, set some ten years after the destruction of Caer. But it lacked something, and it didn’t get far. A few times in the two years that followed, I tried out one thing or another – a second protagonist as a travelling companion and ally, a series of short stories involving individual encounters, scenes I thought might need to exist in a novel. But it was still missing something. I worked on other projects.

Now to this year. This year has been an odd one. I got a full-time job, lost it without warning or explanation a week after my probation period ended, learned I was autistic, worked through a hell of a lot of baggage about that, then got another job where I am much happier. I’ve been there four months – longer than I was at the previous job.

In August this year I came to a realisation that, all this time, I’d been writing Blaze and Kell as a metaphor for autism. The affinity for fire as a special interest, the overwhelming effects of it causing an overload response, the discomfort of certain sensations making concentration difficult, the effect of immortality causing isolation as a parallel to my own social awkwardness making it hard to fit in. This wasn’t a product purely of my imagination, it was an embellished analogy for what I experienced daily and had no word for until recently: autism.

That realisation made it all click into place. It felt as though I’d been looking through a keyhole, trying to work out the story from what little I could see, for years, and now I had the key and could open the door and walk right inside. Since then, I have written tens of thousands of words of notes, and at least as many words of actual story drafts, each version building on previous decisions, revelations and calculations to make Kell’s story more and more real. Every day I get closer to creating a story, and every day I am excited by what I discover in the process.

It is a process of constant revision. A decision I make one day may be revoked or overwritten the next day when I get a better idea of how to approach the scene, think more about the implications of events on non-core characters and the world at large, or work out how a character is likely to behave or react. A small idea one day might grow and, a week later, become a significant plot point, a new character or an element of the world that makes it feel more real and lived-in.

There are still gaps. I focus on what interests me, and follow the threads until I am satisfied. There are still things I need to visualise – especially now I’ve realised that I’ve been picturing two events as being on opposite sides of the river, without having a river crossing happening in between them. Oops.

But I’m getting there. I’ve got an outline. Well, I’ve got several, and the latest one – written two days ago – already needs to be amended to take into account new decisions made today about the timescales in the final third. I’ve started on character sheets. I’ve got some ideas about family trees I need to write down.

Even when I start the next draft of the manuscript, the revision won’t stop. It never does; it can’t. Generally my process when writing a manuscript is to stick at it, start to finish, and not go back and change anything, but rather make a note where I’m at, stating the planned change, and continuing with the text on the assumption that the change has been made, then go back at the end to make the edits. It’s how I can revise without losing momentum on the story.

It’s come a long way. Over the course of more than ten years, I have created and refined a character and a concept until I’ve found a story that draws on my own experiences and tries to explore life through the lens of autism, in a fantasy world as alien and familiar to me as the real one, while still telling a story about a character with hopes and fears and goals. I have no doubt it’s still got a way to go – aside from the gaps I’ve yet to work out, the names I need to fix, I’ve still got the whole manuscript to write, after all. But I’m certain the end is in sight now. I’ve found what was missing before. I’ve revised my way to the story I’m trying to tell.

When the revision stops, that’ll be when I know it’s ready to be seen by eyes other than my own.

Five phrases people on the internet keep getting wrong

If there’s something I really hate, it’s when people on the internet are wrong.

Obviously this happens all the time and I don’t much care when they get it wrong in ways I wouldn’t notice, because who has time to look up every claim made when chances are the top comment will be a snooty correction by someone who does care?

No, what I care about is when people spell idioms and phrases incorrectly. Of course, I can’t correct them in the comments, because that looks petty and snooty. But in a blog post is a different matter: it’s not a direct response to anyone, and in any case my intent here is to educate and entertain, so even if you are getting these phrases right, you’ll still learning something interesting along the way.

So here are five phrases people get wrong on the internet:

Toe the line

Often misspelled “tow the line”, the origins of this phrase are disputed in the detail but not the effect: it comes from the need of a group of people to line up neatly, with their toes touching a line on the ground. Whether these individuals were school boys being inspected at roll-call, sailors in the Royal Navy lining up along the lines of the planks of the deck for inspection, or people in a foot race starting at the exact same starting line is disputed. In modern parlance, “toe the line” means to conform with specific standards, usually of behaviour or productivity.

The phrase has nothing to do with hauling upon a rope, though the Royal Navy sailors of the 18th century who might toe the line would be plenty of that too!

The Battle of Camperdown by Philip James de Loutherbourg. “Toe the line” might originate from inspections of sailors, standing with their toes touching a line between the planks of the deck.

Lo and behold

“Lo and behold” is used to express a turn of events or situation which might have been predicted or considered predictable. When I hear it used, it’s usually to emphasise the speaker’s foresight and the lack of wisdom of their subject, as in “I told him if he let her eat sweets she wouldn’t want her dinner, and lo and behold, five o’clock comes round and she’s throwing her spoon on the floor.” It’s also used when there is a surprising coincidence: “I met a lovely lady while I was on holiday in Cyprus, we really got on, and lo and behold, she lives only a mile away from me!”

It’s an odd one, this phrase, because “lo” is a very uncommon word used only in this idiom and a few archaic and Biblical contexts. It is commonly misspelled “low”, a far more common word which is pronounced identically. “Lo” here is a shortening of “look”, but with a more exclamatory tone; literally the phrase would be equivalent to “look and see”. Being fairly informal, it’s easy to see why it is so commonly misspelled: it’s spoken far more often than it’s written.

With bated breath

As with “lo”, “bated” isn’t a common word outside this idiom. It is an abbreviated form of “abated”, which means reduced or lessened. So “with bated breath” could be interpreted as holding your breath – which you might be doing as you eagerly await to hear news of something, which is the idiomatic meaning: “eagerly, with great anticipation”, according to Wiktionary. The first recorded use of the phrase, like thousands of others, is in Shakespeare, who used it in The Merchant of Venice. And while perhaps we shouldn’t be taking spelling lessons from a man who spelled his own name in several different ways, that spelling has indeed stuck, in parallel to the word it abbreviates.

The homonym “baited” is the incorrect alternative – and it crops up even in published books like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, according to The Phrase Finder. But how can you bait breath? And what are you attempting to catch with that bait? It makes much more sense when spelled correctly, once you understand the root.

The 2004 film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice has quite the all-star cast.

Free rein

The alternative (incorrect) spelling of this phrase, “free reign”, appears in 46% of uses of this phrase, so it’s a very common error (according to Jeremy Butterfield in the Oxford A-Z of English Usage). The image it conjures up is persuasive, as if a king or queen can act as they wish, though in that case they wouldn’t need a free reign at all, only a reign. The actual origins come from horse riding, where the rider slackens the reins and allows the horse to choose where to go and at what speed. This makes more sense considering the meaning: someone is given the freedom to make decisions where they might not usually, such as a junior team member having free rein over a project, where normally their manager directs their work.

For all intents and purposes

I end with a phrase that is both commonly misspelled and commonly corrected, so hopefully you’re getting this one right anyway. It means “in the practical sense” or “in respect to what is important”. It may be used in contrast to what is technically the case but not viable: “While producing this part itself isn’t banned, importing one of the raw materials is illegal, so for all intents and purposes it is impossible.”

The origins of this are even older than Shakespeare (though not by much): in an Act of Parliament under King Henry VIII in 1546, the phrase was used as “to all intents, constructions and purposes”.

The incorrect construction, “for all intensive purposes”, is pretty old too: The Phrase Finder quotes The Fort Wayne Daily Gazette from 1870, where a political figure is described as follows: “to all intensive purposes, politically speaking, he might as well have been dead.”

A portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger; an Act of Parliament unde the Tudor monarch is the first known use of a variant on the idiom “for all intents and purposes”.

What misspelled phrases and idioms do you notice people getting wrong a lot? Which phrases have etymologies that are particularly interesting or obscure?

This character sketch thing is difficult (Week 2 of Start Writing Fiction)

Since Monday I’ve been working my way through the second week of the Open University’s Start Writing Fiction course on FutureLearn. The initial exercises proved to be reasonably easy. The first was to consider the best and worst place to write, in my opinion, and then put a character into each one. I think I got the idea of place reasonably well, but failed to put into practice the concepts of showing character explored in week 1. The second was about using fluff phrases to start a sentence, before rewriting the paragraph to remove the fluff phrase. Again, I think I managed okay with the exercise itself, but didn’t put character into either one.

The third and final exercise troubles me. The prompt was to turn on the radio and use the first thing I heard as the basis for a short story, but the exercise also had specific instructions to include week 1’s concepts. Using physical description, actions, backstory and so on to reveal personality.

Continue reading This character sketch thing is difficult (Week 2 of Start Writing Fiction)