Tag Archives: writing

Potatoes and Dragons

Yesterday a thread on Reddit’s fantasy writers board brought up a topic I’ve long meant to write something about, and framed it in a way that I think makes the problem quite clear. User Hoosier_Jedi asked whether the existence of dragons and other fantasy elements in a world could justify dismissing concerns about the presence of South American crops in a world otherwise heavily influenced by Europe, and though I have responded in that thread I want to expand and clarify my thoughts here, because while the question posed is about potatoes, tomatoes and dragons, it has wider implications about the attitude a writer takes to worldbuilding and immersion.

Let’s start with looking at potatoes and dragons specifically.

A selection of different varieties of potatoes
Potatoes. Source: Wikipedia.

On Earth, potatoes are a tuber crop originating in the Andes region of South America, where they were domesticated as a high-altitude staple capable of surviving on marginal land where other crops could not, which could be freeze-dried or powdered for long-term storage. They reached the rest of the world following the Spanish Conquest of South America under Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century, and popularised in Europe as a result of their adaptability and high nutritional content.

Manuscript depicting a knight and a dragon fighting within the shape of a large letter R
A dragon and a knight in an initial letter R from from the frontispiece of a 12th-century manuscript of St. Gregory’s Moralia in Job, Dijon, Bibl. Municipale, MS 2. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dragons, on the other hand, aren’t real*. They’re a mythical monster found, amongst other places, in medieval stories and artworks, making for suitably threatening enemies for gallant heroes to defeat as they demonstrate their skill and bravery.

So, given that potatoes are real and dragons are not, why is it that readers have a hard time accepting potatoes in many fantasy worlds but are fine with dragons?

There are two facets to the answer, I think: the first is about believability and realism, and the second about the work the author puts in and what they leave to the reader.

Believability and realism are related concepts, but they’re not the same thing. Realism is about factual accuracy and faithful recreation of reality. It is vital to the reader’s acceptance of historical fiction and historically-faithful fantasy. Believability is a little more nebulous. It is about creating the appearance of a world or situation that *might* be possible, in another universe, and depends upon using elements of realism combined with internally-logical imagined elements.

In a setting heavily inspired by 13th century Italy or 9th century Britain, potatoes and dragons might be equally unrealistic elements in a story, but not equally unbelievable, if dragons are accepted as part of the fantasy side of the setting and haven’t enabled centuries-earlier discovery of the Americas.

And this is where the work comes in. Readers make assumptions about setting based on the worldbuilding elements the author specifically mentions. There often isn’t space to go into detailed descriptions of every part of a fantasy world. The approach most authors take is to seed their story with worldbuilding hints, brushing upon details when they can organically come up, expanding upon those things that are plot-relevant, and letting the reader fill in the gaps.

But if all of the seeds look like pre-Columbian Europe, the inclusion of a single element from outside that – whether potatoes, katanas or kangaroos – is going to be jarring. It doesn’t match with what the reader already knows of the world of the story or what they might have filled the gaps with. It becomes noticeable, and it interrupts immersion. The reader stops thinking about the story and starts wondering where these potatoes came from.

This doesn’t happen so often with dragons. Why? Because when an author includes something like dragons – or unicorns, magic, eldrich horrors from dark dimensions and so on – they consider their role in the story world. They mentally work through the implications and the impacts that these things would have on society, the way it might change lifestyles, architectural approaches, social hierarchies and so on.

Potatoes, on the other hand, might just be an oversight. And if they’re the only thing from Earth’s American continents in a fantasy world otherwise containing only European dressing, it looks to the reader like a mistake based on ignorance, not a conscious worldbuilding choice.

To make the inclusion of potatoes in a setting that is otherwise heavily European-styled, the author needs to put in more work. If they’re a shorthand for a staple tuber crop and not intended to literally be identical to Earth-potatoes, why pick potatoes instead of, for example, turnips? If they’re intended to demonstrate a more global trade network or a history of exploration that has since been forgotten, where are the other things that might have made the same journey?

To make potatoes feel more believable in a pseudo-European setting, simply seed in worldbuilding that shows there’s more to it than that. Throw in a fashionable courtier wearing the finest imported jaguar furs, or market stall traders shouting the prices of llama wool blankets,  or religious authorities condemning the cultivation of quinoa and calling the society of its origin heretics. That’ll give the sense of a wider world your society is in contact with, and make the inclusion of potatoes feel deliberate and natural.

This isn’t just about potatoes. It can apply to any element outside of the reader expectations you build with your setting. It’s about creating a world where readers can easily accept the little differences between the fantasy world and Earth, so that they can focus on reading about the characters, engaging in the action – and getting lost in a world that feels real.

Sure, dragons are less realistic than potatoes, but the humble potato can still be a bigger threat to the believability of your fantasy world than the mighty dragon, if you don’t take the time to think about what readers assume.

What are the most jarring fantasy anachronisms you’ve come across? And, conversely, what are the most inventive and impressive solutions you’ve seen in fantasy to avoid or explain them?

 

* No, komodo dragons don’t count.

It’s 2019 and I’ve got Goals with a capital G

Happy New Year, everyone! My regular followers might have noticed that my output in 2018, and for that matter in 2017, hasn’t exactly been high. Part of that, I think, was fatigue around blogging and part was having quite a lot else on to worry about in my personal life. But 2019 is going to be different. Honest. While a lot of 2018’s worries haven’t gone away, with a new year comes a fresh outlook.

This is a quick update about my goals for the year and what I’ve got planned. So let’s get right to it.

Reading

Last year was a dismal year for me as far as reading was concerned. I barely read anything and didn’t review what I did read. This year I’ll do better. I’ve set a goal on Goodreads to read 24 books in 2019 – that’s two per month. And I don’t think I’ll have any trouble finding 24 books to read, between my “to read” pile (utterly massive) and the books coming out this year that I’m excited about (loads of them). I plan on reviewing any fantasy novels I read right here, but I’ll keep track of everything else – which is likely to include historical fiction and loads of non-fiction – with quarterly updates on my progress towards my 24 book goal, much like I did back in 2016.

Writing

I’ve been hard at work in the last few months working out what I want from my current novel. I now have a working title – Feud and Fire – as well as a general outline, a lot of notes about themes, particular plotlines, character and the world, and at the end of December I started the latest draft. I am happy with where I am with this story. My goal for 2019 is to write it, edit it and get it to a refined final state. Whether I then consider submitting for publication or decide there’s more work to be done is something I’ll decide when I get to that point.

I am also planning on writing some short fiction in 2019. I spend so much time working on these big novels, that a short break after finishing the Feud and Fire draft would be an ideal time to practice a shorter format, especially since I have enjoyed reading short fiction in 2018 (just about the only type of story where I have read more than previous years, thanks to the Daily Science Fiction emails I receive) and it’s been a while since I’ve written any.

Later this week I’ll be taking a look at how things stand for my One Million Words Challenge. I started it back in 2015 but stopped keeping track of it after a while. I have, however, continued to date each new document I create and each day of handwritten fiction in my notebooks, so it should only take an hour or two to get a fairly good idea of my overall total, by simply adding up the wordcounts of the numerous documents I have created since I started and adding an estimate of the handwritten stuff based on multiplying an average page wordcount by the number of pages.

Blogging

Yep, this is something I’m planning on increasing this year. I can hardly do worse than last year, so I’ve got that going for me. But in fact I’ve got a few ideas planned out, and with all that reading I’ll be doing there are bound to be a few reviews at the very least.

So that’s the plan for this year.

What about you? Do you have reading and writing goals for 2019? What are they? How do you think you’ll do? Did you meet your 2018 goals?

Earned drama

Over the past couple of days I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading back over some of the stories I have written in the past. One of the things I noticed about what I was writing about 8-10 years ago was that I spent a lot of time dwelling on the big emotional moments and rushed through or outright skipped over the slow building of tensions and the subplots and the character building. The result was that it left the stories I was writing feeling flat, empty, melodramatic.

Coincidentally, today a thread popped up on my twitter feed about this very problem:

Click through and read the whole thread, it’s not very long, but it really hits the nail on the head when it comes to what my problem has been with these particular stories, and crucially, how to fix it:

This is very helpful advice and for me, it’s come at just the right time.

One of the stories I wrote back in about 2009 is one I shared with a friend and fellow writer at the time. He was very diplomatic and supportive, but it was clear he didn’t think much of it. And the problem I had was exactly what Mara Fitzgerald has described: I knew the messy world, but I didn’t put it on the page. The story didn’t engage my friend in 2009, and it hurt to see it because I was emotionally invested in it. But reading back with the distance of time and nine years more experience as a writer, I can see it as he did.

I hadn’t earned the emotion with the story I’d written.

I wrote my article about Zuko’s character arc in Avatar: The Last Airbender nearly 5 years ago. It remains the most popular article on this blog. And I think it’s because Zuko’s arc is such a strong one, and it’s written so well, that people remember it and engage with it. It’s not just because of the popular trope of an enemy becoming a friend, though that may be part of it. It’s about earned emotion. Zuko’s eventual turn away from his upbringing to help Aang works because it is done at the right pace. It isn’t rushed. There’s even a moment where Zuko can join the good guys and doesn’t, because he’s not reached the right place emotionally for it to be the clear choice for him.

I am – I’ll be honest – procrastinating right now by writing this blog post. I’m almost ready to start the next draft of my WIP. I’ve been working on it for months. Making notes, writing scenes as I work though the ideas and themes of it. And yes, I’ve been writing the big emotional scenes without filling in the gaps of the framework, slap my wrist. Knowing I’m not the only one that does that makes me feel better about it. Understanding why I do it, and how to combat it, means I feel far better about facing the blank first page.

I think the way to think about it as a tower. The big emotional moments are the banners flying from the top and over the door, but unless I build the tower itself beam by beam and stone by stone, the banners are just going to drag on the ground. It I want them to flutter majestically in the wind, I’ve got some work to put in.

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.

Even more writing retrospection; or, Fear of Old Stories

There is a piece of music called Reverie by Ludovico Einaudi that I love, but haven’t listened to in over 6 years, until now. It’s a beautiful, calm, emotional piece, that at one time I listened to on repeat for hours. That time was when I was a student, my third undergraduate year and my Masters year, when I was working on a story called The General’s Secret. Friends from that time might recognise the title. I was obsessed with it. It consumed my thoughts, filled my dreams. I have on my computer 33 documents related to this story: notes, manuscripts, scenes, alternative endings, alternative beginnings, character sheets, outlines and restarts. And Reverie was the piece of music I listened to when writing all of them.

Reverie is on Einaudi’s 2009 album Nightbook.

At the time I was writing this story, I was convinced it was a great work, a magnum opus. The emotions I poured into it exhausted me. My obsession with the story led me to make notes about or even write scenes when I was meant to be paying attention to lectures or seminars. I spent time writing when I should have been studying. I pulled all-nighters to get essays done in the nick of time because I’d let the story take over my thoughts, fill my breaks from studying and push them beyond all reasonable boundaries.

In the end I came to the realisation that I had to drop the story, or I wouldn’t get a good grade for my masters degree – or wouldn’t get the degree at all. And when I dropped it, I had to drop Reverie too. The track that had been inexorably linked to the story could derail my determination to study hard.

I can see it in the “last modified” dates of my files. Ordered chronologically, there’s a fairly constant stream of documents from mid 2009 through to 26 May 2011, but then a gap of four months, ending the day after I handed in my MA dissertation. But after that I only created six more documents, none of them long, spread out over the last few months of 2011 and into early 2012: two new starts, three notes documents, one alternative ending.

I was scared of that story for the longest time. I dropped the protagonist and the world entirely from what I wrote about for a couple of years. I didn’t listen to Reverie, and after backing it up on my external hard drive, deleted it from my computer. It wasn’t until 2015 I felt able to return to the world, though the protagonist had changed a lot, and I picked a setting right at the start of her story, long before the events of The General’s Secret. I didn’t look back over my old notes, either for GS or for the other stories in the same world and with the same protagonist. I still didn’t listen to Reverie.

Partly I feared the obsession. If I’d let it get to me, that story could have ended my studies. As it was, it certainly contributed to lower grades than I might have had otherwise; work that I know I could have done better on. It harmed my relationships because I spent my time on that instead of with my fiance and my friends.

Part of it was the fear that I couldn’t write that well without the obsession. I cried when I was writing The General’s Secret. Writing betrayal scenes made me distrust everyone for days after; writing the final departure left me feeling as bereft as my protagonist was. The intensity of my writing experience convinced me that the quality of what I wrote must be incredible. Compared to what I had written before, it certainly felt like it was.

But here I am, six years after the last word I wrote on that project, listening to Reverie again for the first time since then, realising how much utter bullshit I had convinced myself of.

Because it wasn’t a magnum opus. It wasn’t incredible literature. It certainly wasn’t insurmountable quality that I could never even aspire to without also submitting to the obsessive and destructive mindset I had when I was writing it.

I’ve reread it. I finally overcame my fears and worries, and looked again at this story that, even when I was writing about my old stories last month, I couldn’t quite face. That’s how powerful that fear was: even when I was deliberately looking back at old stories to see how far I’d come, there remained a single exception that it has taken me three weeks to get over.

The General’s Secret is a juvenile story with stilted dialogue, contrived plot points, minimal characterisation and a very poor understanding of human emotion and motivations.

Thank goodness I didn’t give up my degree for it.

The reason that I can see that now is that my ability to judge the quality of writing has improved vastly in the last six years. That, I think, it due to a combination of factors: more experience of the world, more exposure to other stories both good and bad, and more practice writing.

But at the same time I can still recognise what I was trying to achieve. The clunky dialogue and contrivances and unrealistic reactions don’t completely obscure the powerful emotions I was trying to evoke. The betrayals, the loss, the realisations, the fears. The problem was that I didn’t have the skill or experience at that time to convey them well. And maybe I still don’t now, but what I do have instead is just enough experience to recognise where the gaps in my knowledge are, and the wisdom to write stories that don’t rely on them.

I won’t be writing The General’s Secret again, I think. There might be something in there that’s salvageable. Themes, worldbuilding elements, names. But not much. I’ve moved past it. My stories have evolved. My writing has improved. But most importantly, my own experiences have introduced me to a whole range of new things to write about. Conflicts I couldn’t have imagined, fears I didn’t understand, and all the beautiful ways that people can be.

And once more, I can listen to Ludovico Einaudi’s Reverie with all the implications of the title, instead of the obsession that I indulged in when I was meant to be studying.

Some more retrospection

At the end of last month I took a look at what I’ve been doing in 2017. This week I’ve been looking further back and reading some of what I was writing since the start of this decade. And I’ve come to realise just how far I have come in that time as a writer. I’ve gone from writing sporadically or when I am inspired to writing every day. I’ve gone from tenative to confident. I think my approach has become more mature and nuanced in that time too.

But there’s a lot that has stayed the same too. There are certain themes and tropes that I have returned to time and time again during the last eight years. I am a total sucker for a redemption arc. I’ve done them repeatedly in several different ways, both in fanfiction and original fiction, across half a dozen settings. Even my latest story has an element of it.

Though it’s a theme I’ve used repeatedly, I think the strongest use I’ve put it to is when I’ve turned it on its head somewhat. I said in my New Year’s Eve post that I wanted to return to the Horrible Monster project (though it really needs a better name than that). In that story, early versions had it as a straight redemption arc for the second main character: a criminal who ultimately helps the protagonist uncover corruption and becomes a hero. But I was never happy with that. It fell flat. It was too easy. It meant that my protagonist didn’t really develop much. She occupied a saviour role, in which her actions enabled the secondary main character’s redeption arc, of which she was the primary judge. And that was boring.

When I finally managed to write a full draft, the saviour element was gone and the protagonist’s arc was much darker. Her motivations were more selfish, her actions to help the secondary character driven by goals other than to benefit him. The arcs for these two characters became mirrors of one another. They were not lifting one another up, but holding each other back from the extremes of what they might have achieved alone or with other allies. There remained something of the redemption arc, but there was also an inverted version, a character development that went in a very different direction. And it made the whole story so much stronger and more compelling.

In a lot of what I have been reading of my old stories, I noticed the tendency to succumb early to the idea of a happy ending, even if there was a lot of plot to go. My favourite characters would join forces, reach a truce, and work together towards a common goal – even if those goals had changed radically for some characters to enable this teamwork. I was too eager to see concord, but it cost the stories I was writing because there is a lot of power in conflict to drive a story forward, to explore themes, and to develop characters, that everyone getting along cannot achieve so easily or at least so interestingly.

I often think about my favourite character arc in fiction: that of Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I explored four years ago on this blog. What makes Zuko’s arc so powerful is that we, the audience, root for him, and specifically root for him to see that Aang is right and his father is wrong – but when he first is presented with a real choice to side with Aang, he doesn’t. And that’s not because he’s evil, because he isn’t. It’s because Zuko has spent so long working towards a powerful personal goal that he is incapable of making the selfless choice. All Zuko has ever wanted is his father to be proud of him. For three years he has lived in exile trying to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, and no amount of lessons from Uncle Iroh or understanding the impact that the Fire Nation’s attacks have had on the people of the Earth Kingdom or kindness from Katara can override that for Zuko.

It is not until he sees the consequences of his choice, and experiences the reward of it, that he can understand the context both of his original exile and of what Aang is trying to achieve. It’s only when he gets what he wanted that he begins to understand whose approval is really worth getting. If Zuko had sided with Aang in Ba Sing Se like so many of us desperately wanted, he couldn’t have completed his redemption arc fully, because he couldn’t have seen the harsh reality of what his desires really meant, and contrasted that reality with the way he had imagined it. He couldn’t have come to realise that his own opinion of himself is much more valuable than his father’s opinion.

A lot of what I wrote when I was much younger took the Ba Sing Se choice and closed the redemption arc too soon. I was focussed too much on the destination and not enough on the steps that needed to be taken to reach it. The endings fell flat. They hadn’t been worked for. The characters hadn’t been developed, I’d written wrongs into them and nearly instantly forgiven them, and then I’d written circumstances to help my other characters forgive them too.

Thankfully, I have got a lot better at this. My more recent stories, Horrible Monster in particular, have been more powerful because I have resisted the urge to indulge in the destination without making the journey.

The other pitfall I wandered into in a lot of my earlier stories, especially those that I abandoned quickly, was to make the redemption arc the centre of the conflict. It is an interesting arc that I am very much drawn to, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of making it the only arc I spend much time on. The stories I like the best now, months or years later, are those in which there are other themes involved too: grief, identity, coping with illness, friendship, community and so on. Those stories had different types of conflicts, nuanced relationships, changing contexts, and better opportunities for those redemption arcs that I am so fond of to go somewhere different and interesting.

A little self-reflection and analysis is a very good thing, and after spending some time looking back at my old stories I feel I’m a lot better equipped to move forward writing stories which have something interesting to say, featuring characters who are more human and more entertaining.

Retrospection and Resolution

The new year is always a time for looking back at the year just gone and making plans for the year ahead.

I don’t feel that 2017 has been a good year for me. I lost my Granny, had a sick partner to take care of, I haven’t had any luck with the job hunt and I didn’t do nearly as much reading or blogging as I hoped. I didn’t achieve the goals I set out to do in January.

But it hasn’t been a complete write-off. I’ve gone a year learning Italian on Duolingo, and since November my writing has really picked up. This last week in particular, I’ve written loads and felt reinvigorated about my fiction.

A little under a year ago I set myself one reading and two writing goals:

  • To read 39 books. I read 17.
  • To rewrite “Horrible Monster”, the story I finished in 2016. I haven’t touched it.
  • To improve my writing by copying and studying twelve authors. I gave up after the first one.

So not exactly a great track record for 2017, but given all the stresses of job hunting, grief, hospital visits and all the rest, it could have been worse.

For 2018 I’m going to set some more realistic goals:

  1. To take time to read every day, even if only for 10 minutes. There are a lot of books on my reading list right now, including some released in 2017 that I ought to have reviewed, some I got for Christmas, and some classics I’ve been meaning to get around to for years.
  2. To finish my current story and bring it up to a standard read to submit. This is the story that I’ve been working on at full steam ahead since November, a pulp science fiction story set in the Second World War, under the working title Aliens in Pendleford. It’s been fun trying something a little different from what I usually go for, and it’s inspired by a combination of the BBC TV series Land Girls and H G Wells’ War of the Worlds – one of those books I’d been intending to read for years.
  3. To revisit Horrible Monster and write a strong second draft. It’s certainly a stronger story than anything I attempted in the first ten months of 2017, but in places it is bloated, and I didn’t quite understand my theme until I was half way through writing it. With a bit of refocusing, I think it could be quite good.
  4. To write more blog posts. With more reading, I should manage more reviews, and with the rate I’ve been writing the odd progress update should be manageable too. Watch this space.

Also in 2018 I’m hoping to get a better job, so that will keep me busy. I will continue practising and studying Italian, and perhaps take an exam in it if I feel ready by the time I need to book it, and I’ll be picking up German too. I was never very good at languages at school – except English, of course. But I think part of that was that I didn’t much like the teachers and had the arrogance of the English to believe I didn’t need another language. But now I’m finding it quite satisfying to see the progress I’m making, the ability to understand written Italian and some spoken, and even slowly compose short sentences without looking at a dictionary or phrase book.

I’m sort of doing NaNoWriMo after all

In October I started writing some fanfiction as a means of giving myself space to think about my novel. This month, I restarted the fanfiction story and added aliens, which I completed at 16,000 words after three days – my biggest daily output in years. It was fun and silly and all about a core character relationship developing across frankly absurd circumstances. There’s a type of relationship I love to explore in my writing, in which advertisaries must work together against a common foe, and the scene I started with, combined with an alien invasion, gave me a chance to write just that.

Then I realised that the only parts of the story that actually involved the original show it was a fanfiction of were the setting, the opening scene and the characters’ names. After that point, well, obviously there are aliens, but that wasn’t the only difference: my two key characters were the one I created and the one who had died in the source material (and in any case was only in about three scenes in that). Other significant characters were original too. The fanfiction part was really an ignition point, and provided a shortcut to remove the need to create a setting from scratch so I could dive right into the story.

So on the 22nd of this month, I started writing a new version, with a new opening scene that ended how I wanted it, but began a little differently. I’ve made a few tweaks both for story reasons and to distance it from the source material, but the general idea is the same.

I’m now over 12,000 words in, so I decided to record my total on NaNoWriMo anyway. Originally was going to be continuing the novel I was working on last month, which wouldn’t be in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, so I didn’t feel it was right to sign up. Since I have started a new story, and been writing a lot more per day than I usually do, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo after all. I don’t expect to hit 50,000 words, both because I’d need to write as much each day until the end of the month as I have in total over five days and because I don’t think it will end up even half that long when it’s finished. It’s really more about recording my progress somewhere (my One Million Words spreadsheet hasn’t been updated in about a year) and challenging myself to finish the story within November.

This story and the fanfiction that it spawned from have really invogorated me. I haven’t written this much in a long time. I’ve gone from averaging around 400 words per day to regularly exceeding 1,000 words and, a few times, writing over 3,000 words in a day. I’ve been waking up and going straight to my manuscript to write, without even making coffee or checking Twitter first (yeah, I know, right?!). I’ve written in my notebook when away from my PC, and typed up as soon as I’ve got home.

It’s so nice to feel so excited about what I’m writing, without having to slog over it and work out complex networks and interwoven plotlines and detailed worldbuilding.

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?

Some reflections on NaNoWriMo

I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo for about 12 years now. I first attempted it ten years ago, in 2007 when I first went to university, so a city that had an active NaNoWriMo group. Since completing my studies, though, I haven’t done much with NaNo: I’ve signed up several times, updated my profile, filled in the novel info, and so on, but after winning in 2008 and 2009, I have not been successful since.

If you are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is an annual writing challenge that takes place in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. The website provides pep talks, community forums and a tracking system, as well as rewards for successful challengers.

Over the last decade I have learned a great deal about writing. I’ve read a lot of books, including several about writing; I have written several novels and numerous short stories; I have agonised over scenes and despaired of ever writing something I could be happy with. NaNoWriMo was an important part of that journey, but it is no longer a good fit for me. At least, not at this stage; I won’t rule out the possibility of it becoming useful to me again.

Part of NaNoWriMo is building discipline: to succeed at such a challenge, a writer must write an average of 1,667 words per day for a whole month. That’s not a trivial amount of words; if I know what I’m writing, I’m not interrupted and I don’t get stuck, that quantity of words would probably take me about an hour and a half. If you miss a day, an even higher daily time commitment would be needed to meet the 50,000-word goal, so writing every day is pretty important.

Developing discipline is an important tool for a writer, but it’s not one I need NaNoWriMo for anymore. Since July 2015, I’ve been writing every day without fail: I’ve got that discipline, even it doesn’t involve as much of a time commitment as NaNoWriMo would require.

NaNoWriMo is a fantastic motivating tool. There are a lot of people who want to write a novel some day but never manage it, or who spend a lot of time planning and never start. Having a major global event which has a start and end date and a clearly-defined goal, in which tens of thousands of people communicate with one another, and regional groups arrange in-person meetings, is incredibly powerful.

But those are not problems I currently have: I’m not a “some day” writer, I’m an “every day” writer. I’m not stuck in the rabbit hole of planning. I’m four chapters deep in my current WIP (work in progress) so I don’t need help starting. I don’t need community forums to motivate me to write, and I can’t easily access regional in-person meetings from the rural backend of the west midlands.

As for deadlines and word targets, I don’t think that suits the way I write at the moment. I don’t want to rush. When I rush for word targets, I write a lot of useless fluff, which only creates more work in the editing stage. I can see the value in it, certainly: a way to prevent self-editing in the writing stage and let the story flow, a challenge to spur you forward. But the pace that suits me is a lot slower than NaNoWriMo aims for. Perhaps in time I will increase my productivity to a rate that makes NaNoWriMo more viable, but that is not the case right now, especially since my current process involves planning and writing one chapter at a time rather than planning everything in advance and then writing the whole story in one go.

That is perhaps a long way of saying “I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year”. It’s been a useful tool for me in the past, and I don’t want anyone to think my decision not to use it this year means I don’t think it’s useful: it is. It just doesn’t fit with my process this year.