Best of Apex Magazine Vol. 1

This is me on a sea-kayaking trip last year with Frood at Portknockie, in which we were ably guided by Sam Weir of Kayak Scotland:

Sea Kayaking at Portknockie

One of the best weekends ever.

That grin on my face is a result of being encouraged into doing things I had no idea I was able to do with the experience I had, and coming out the other side with vastly increased confidence and a burning desire to get out there, do more and go further, and have even more fun in the process.

Now you have a good idea of what my face looked like when I found out that my story She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow has been selected by Jason Sizemore and Lesley Connor for Best of Apex Volume 1. There might have been some jumping around squealing, too.

Just a bit.

To help fund the project, the Apex team is holding a raffle for a place on Carrie Cuinn’s Editing for Writers workshop, worth $100. The course is 4 weeks long, and should be a goodie.

“Editing 101” – AKA “Editing for Writers”. Identifying parts of a story, tenses and perspectives, narrative arcs, and other elements that are potentially affected by the editing process. Definitions, editing marks, using (and creating) style sheets, important style manuals, levels of editing, and fact-checking. The basics of copyediting: concepts and skills necessary for line editing (also called copyediting), relying mainly on the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed; editing vs. proofreading; tips for spotting tricky errors. The basics of developmental editing: what it is and isn’t, including the specifics of developmental editing in fiction. We’ll also cover rates, and working with clients, including querying about edits, maintaining an author’s voice, and related services.

As you may already know, Carrie published my story What The Water Gave Her in the Dagan Books anthology Fish, which was a huge deal for me. Carrie is putting herself through school at the moment, supporting herself with her freelance author and editor work, while raising her young son. This is a great opportunity to buy a chance to take what promises to be a great course for the sum of $3, which is less than a pint of beer or a large coffee at Haymarket’s AMT. Apex will split what they get from the raffle 50/50 with Carrie. Buying a ticket will help support both Apex and Carrie, and put you in with a chance of winning the top prize. Other prizes on offer include print copies of Women and Other Constructs by Carrie Cuinn, Starve Better by Nick Mamatas, To Each Their Darkness by Gary A. Braunbeck, and For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher by Jason Sizemore.

Go on. You know you want to.

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More word fuel: Bread. Nommy, nommy, home-made bread.

What better accompaniment to freshly brewed coffee than soft, delicious, home-baked bread?

Fresh from the oven

Here’s one I made earlier.

We make all our own bread. It started as an experiment, because I was having trouble with wheat. Marko read somewhere that the commercial method of bread production, the Chorleywood Bread Process, can produce bread that some people find problematic, because it is so fast the yeasts don’t have time to break down the gluten properly. This might or might not be true in my case, but my experience of home made bread has been a positive one, and I don’t enjoy commercial bread any more.

It might seem like a lot of effort, but it really isn’t, and while the resulting loaf works out more expensive than a standard sliced white from Aldi, my preference is to substitute quality for quantity where it makes sense to do so. Each 1kg loaf we make does us for anything from 4 days to a week, and while the process takes a few hours, the amount of actual work involved is about 15 minutes, and it’s well worth it.

So if you’re having a day at home writing, and fancy breaking up your writing with an activity that doesn’t take your mind away from the story, try making some bread.

For reference, all my flour comes from Marriage’s Millers these days. I’ve tried lots, and their flour consistently produces great results. I most often use a 50:50 blend of Strong Wholemeal and Very Strong Canadian White flours, but you can make up the full weight with whatever flour you like, as long as it’s bread flour. I also have a baking dome by La Cloche, which Marko bought me for Christmas last year and is the most frequently used piece of specialised kitchen kit I own apart from the kettle and the Chemex. It makes superb bread in a standard domestic oven. For proving, I use a 1kg lined wicker proving basket.

You don’t need to use either a dome or a basket — the following recipe can be baked in a 1kg (2lb) loaf tin. If you want to do that, the dough should go into the tin for its second proving. Alternatively, you can use the dough to make a plaited loaf or some other shape that will hold itself together on a tray for the second prove.

Our last trick is the use of a sourdough flour improver. Our sourdough is around three years old, and I’ve tagged a method for making one at the bottom. It’s not necessary to include this, and you can either leave it out or put in quarter of a cup (about 4 tablespoons, or 60ml) or plain, live yoghurt instead.

This recipe makes an 800g loaf. Or thereabouts.

Ingredients

  • 600g flour (strong white, strong wholemeal, or a blend of flours, as long as they are strong bread flours) plus a little more for dusting the proving basket, if using
  • 100ml boiling water
  • 260ml cold water
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp dried yeast (unlike Paul Hollywood, I do NOT use the fast acting kind, which contains flour improvers, but the kind that needs to be activated in water)
  • 1.5 tsp fine sea salt
  • Half a cup (about 120 ml, or a ladle full) of sourdough starter OR quarter of a cup (about 60ml) of plain live yoghurt (optional)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil plus a little more for oiling the proving bowl, the kneading surface and the tin/tray/dome

Method

1.Dissolve the sugar in the boiling water. Add the cold water, then sprinkle the yeast in and mix thoroughly. Measure out the flour into a large mixing bowl.
2. Go away and do something else for fifteen minutes. Perhaps a timed writing exercise. Adam Maxwell has a fun prompt generator if you’re stuck for ideas. Or how about a picture prompt from Flickr? I keep a Pinterest board just for story prompts — feel free to use one of those.
3. Now your yeast mix should be nice and frothy. (It could take longer if your house is cold. If this is an issue, you can use 150 ml boiling water and 210ml cold water to give it a boost.) Add it to the flour along with about half a cup of sourdough mix or the yoghurt, if using. Mix it together thoroughly with a butter knife, so all the flour is incorporated. It might be quite sticky: this is fine.
4. Go away and do something else for twenty minutes. Perhaps another timed writing exercise. You could use the results of your last one as a starting point or try something different. Maybe a random Wikipedia entry. Or pick a scene from one of your favourite stories and write about what one of the bystander characters was doing before the scene started.
5. Now that the flour has had a chance to absorb all the water, and the yeast has started work, add 1 tbsp of olive oil and the salt to the dough. Squidge it all together and turn out onto an oiled surface. Knead. Try not to add any more flour, even if the dough feels sticky, unless it’s more like wrestling with an amorous squid than kneading.
HOW TO KNEAD: Pin one edge of the dough ball with the fingers of one hand (usually your non-dominant), as if it had teeth at the other end and poisonous spines, and the only way you could keep it from escaping or turning round to bite you was by pressing the fluffy top of its tail to the ground. With the heel of the other hand, push the dough away from you, stretching it to about as half as far as you can reach. Take the distant end, fold it in half back over itself towards you, then turn the dough through 90° (a quarter turn) and repeat. Once you get the hang of it, you can try the double fold (stretch as far as you can reach, fold, press down, fold again, turn, repeat).
6. Knead until the squid wants you to stop — the dough will tighten and feel like it wants to stay a ball rather than be your BFF and cling to you for dear life. At this point the surface will be smooth and soft, but the dough may still be a bit sticky. That’s fine, as long as it’s happy being a ball. This takes about ten minutes, which is just enough time to think about what you’re going to write next, or for your subconscious to get to work on that tricky plot point that’s been bothering you.
7. Round the dough.
HOW TO ROUND THE DOUGH: On an oiled surface, and with freshly oiled hands, flatten the dough into a round then pinch a bit of an edge, pull it out and fold it back in to the centre. Repeat slightly further along, as if you were creating petals and folding them into a bud. Once you’ve done this all the way round, turn the dough over and use the edges of both hands to smooth down and spin the dough, tucking it under itself. Gill Meller of River Cottage has a video showing the process — start at 4:45 to avoid listening to his sales pitch for the oven he’s using.
8. Place the rounded dough in an oiled bowl (I use a 3 litre Pyrex mixing bowl), top down to get it oiled, then flip it so the top is uppermost. Cover in cling film. Now go away and do something else while it rises, which can be anything from 1 hour to 4 hours depending on room temperature. I often bring my dough with me into my office/writing space so I can keep an occasional eye on it.
9. Once it has doubled in size, knock it back by prodding it firmly with a fist, and repeat the ROUNDING step. If you’re using a round proving basket, dust the basket with flour and put the dough in with what will be the base of the loaf uppermost. If you’re proving it in a tin, shape the rounded dough into a fat sausage with your hands, tuck the ends under, then put it into the oiled tin and press down so it reaches the corners. If you’re shaping your loaf some other way, do that instead. Cover your dough with either a damp, lint-free dish towel, or stick it inside a plastic bag.
10. Go away and leave it to rise again for around half an hour to an hour. It’s easy to tell when it’s ready if it’s in a basket or a tin: once it has grown just higher than the top of the tin or the basket you’re good to go.
11. FOR A TIN:
Slash the loaf with a very sharp knife or smoothly serrated bread knife, once in the middle and again about halfway to either end. Spray the surface of the loaf with water and place into a preheated oven as hot as you can get it. If you like, you can throw a few ice cubes into the bottom of the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then spray again and turn down to 200°C (180 fan) for a further 30 – 40 depending on your oven.
FOR A BASKET AND DOME:
Turn the dough into the oiled base of the dome, slash once right across the middle of the loaf (you might need to make repeat cuts to get the slash deep enough — it should be about half the depth of the loaf), cover, then put into a cold oven. Switch the oven on to 200 °C, bake for 35 minutes, then remove the cover and bake for a further 15-20 minutes.
12. Turn the loaf out onto a cooling rack. If it’s done, it should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
13. Leave to cool for at least an hour — the sooner you cut into it, the sooner it will start to go stale.

A fresh loaf of bread

The finished loaf, next to a standard mug for scale (see previous post for how to get 5 of these from one Chemex coffee maker).

NOTE: you can make a slightly smaller loaf using 500g flour and 300ml water. The 5:3 ratio is the starting point for all basic bread recipes. You can always use the Bakerybits dough calculator for other quantities.

To make your own sourdough starter, take 150g of strong white flour and mix it with 150ml of tepid water in a bowl. Whisk thoroughly, wandering around, harvesting yeast from the air like a perambulatory sky anemone. When I first did ours, I kicked our wood pile a few times and ambled around outside for ages, singing to the yeasts in the hope of luring them from their aerial manoeuvres into my bowl. Cover and leave for 48 hours. Add another 150g of flour and 150 ml of tepid water. By now it should have started bubbling a bit and smell a bit sour. Don’t worry if not, it can take a few days as this method uses only aerial wild yeasts, and they take a while to adapt to their new home. Leave for a further 48 hours, then discard half the mix and replace with 150g flour and 150 ml water. After another 48 hours you should definitely be seeing bubbles, but it might smell acidic rather than pleasantly sour. Keep feeding every couple of days until the colony has settled down and it smells nicely sour and a bit yeasty, almost like beer froth. It is now ready to use. We keep ours in a tupperware tub on top of the breadbin, and it is fed 1 – 2 times a week with strong white flour (i.e. whenever we make bread). It behaves best when the mix is quite thick, like drop scone batter, and it is beaten vigorously at feeding time. Every couple of months we transfer it to another tub and wash the one it’s in.

Chemex brewing for the caffeinated caterpillar

It’s a common generalisation that writers are fuelled by coffee. (I know of one or two who reserve the coffee for the editing part, but it remains part of their process.) I consider myself one of the unfortunates who was born with a less than optimal quantity of caffeine naturally present in the bloodstream, thus being obliged to consume more merely in order to obtain some semblance of normal function. I drink a lot of it, and therefore am particular about it. My beans are fresh ground at home in a burr mill grinder approaching its fourteenth birthday, and every three weeks I buy freshly roasted beans, storing opened packets in an Airscape vacuum canister.

I believe I’ve tried just about every form of coffee making known to man with the exception of, thus far, cold brewed and the vacuum system used by Hannibal (the latter firmly out of my price range). I have a single cup drip filter, an Aeropress and a French press at work, choice dependent on how much time I have to make the coffee. At home I have a drip machine, stove top espresso maker (Moka pot), turkish coffee pot (Ibrik) and a Chemex.

Chemex with two rather pretty mugs

Chemex with two rather pretty mugs but NOT ENOUGH COFFEE.

The Chemex is a thing of beauty, and appeals to me because SCIENCE. I have used my fair share of conical flasks in my time. It also makes the best long coffee, in my opinion. If you like your coffee short, dark, bitter, thick and with crema, this isn’t for you; I generally prefer long to short, however.

It also has literary history: it’s the coffee maker used by James Bond, as specified in From Russia With Love:

It consisted of very strong coffee, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex, of which he drank two large cups, black and without sugar.

If that were not enough, it’s the only coffee maker to find a place in the Museum of Modern Art.

If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m a bit of a fan.

HOWEVER. It’s not a fast method (hence the machine drip filter for weekday mornings), and nor is it straightforward. Especially if, like me, you are a caffeine monster for whom the standard instructions for a brew to the button (the glass bubble near the bottom) are risibly inadequate.

This, fellow coffee lovers, is a method for brewing a LOT* of coffee in a 10 cup Chemex and keeping it hot while you undertake the business of the day without having it cooking on the stove.

Here’s what you need:

Coffee, kettle, vacuum flask, chemex

Left to right that’s an electric kettle (American readers, I have no idea what you use for boiling water, but use that instead), my trusty Dualit grinder containing 60g of freshly roasted Brazilian Yellow Bourbon, the Airscape from whence came the beans, a l litre vacuum flask and my 10 cup Chemex (CM-10A) containing a pre-folded unbleached filter. (I also use the bleached round unfolded filters, because, again, SCIENCE, but I think the unbleached gives a marginally faster flow so it’s possible to use a slightly finer grind of coffee and thus a slightly more complex flavour profile.) If you are making coffee just for yourself, you may want a larger flask, say 1.5l.Wash the filter

1. Boil about 500ml of water in your kettle. When it boils, put it in the empty flask. Now refill the kettle (ours has a capacity of 1.7l) but don’t switch it on, yet.

2. Grind your beans. It should be a moderately coarse grind, so the coffee ends up the texture of beach sand. While it’s grinding, using about half the water in the flask, rinse down the filter paper. It’s tempting to skip this step, but don’t. It gets rid of any residue from the packing and warms the Chemex. Discard the rinsing water.

3. Put the ground coffee into the Chemex. Switch on the kettle. Using just enough of the hot water still in the flask, soak the coffee until it’s saturated but not floating, then stir. Empty any remaining water from the flask but put the lid back on to retain heat.Stir the coffee

4. Once the kettle has boiled, fill the flask. Use the water from the flask to pour over the coffee in the Chemex, using a spiral motion to ensure even coverage. Fill to within about 5mm of the glass rim. Stir again.Add more water

5. Top up the water in the flask using the water in the kettle. Transfer the Chemex to the stove top. If you have gas or ceramic you’re fine — if you have a coil element you will need a special heat diffuser to ensure you don’t damage the Chemex. Turn on the stove to its lowest setting.

6. Once the water has filtered through, top up the Chemex using the remaining water in the kettle (it will now have cooled to the ideal 90 – 92ºC) by pouring gently down the sides of the filter paper, washing the coffee grounds back down into the mix.

Keep filling7. Continue topping up the Chemex in this fashion using water from the flask, being careful not to overfill, until you have achieved the desired amount of coffee. In my case, this is to the neck.Full!

8. Remove the filter paper, holding it above the Chemex for a few moments to allow any remaining coffee to drain. You don’t want to lose any.

9. Empty any remaining water from the flask (there won’t be much) and fill the flask with coffee. You can now pour yourself a mug using what’s left in the Chemex, safe in the knowledge the rest will stay hot for however long your flask is supposed to keep things hot.

10. Enjoy with your current reading material, or use to fuel words.

Enjoy!

* By “a LOT” I mean about 5 full British mugs, or roughly 1.6 litres of coffee.
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The Spotty Raptors – Mad Max causes a difference of opinion

SPOILER WARNING!

Look, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with me if I don't like the same things as you.

“So, um, Mad Max, what did you think?”
“Mumble-mmmf?”
“Mad Max. The new one. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron.”
“Mmmm mmmf mmmf mumble mmf.”
“Yeah, I know you went to see it last Thursday. That’s why I was asking.”
“Mmmf gnnnngh mmhgnn mmf.”
“It’s just, you know. I didn’t like it.”
“Mmble?”
“Everyone says it’s fantastic, euphoric, the best thing ever, and Furiosa might as well have been driving around a War Rig loaded with salty man tears, but it was stupid.”
“Mmmf mmmble gnngh mmfngle!”
“Really! They only take the thin, pretty girls, no water or food, only, you know, mother’s milk — and all that milk came from the large ladies they left behind, who were good enough to provide milk, which means good enough to provide babies, but not come with or something — drive hundreds of miles into the desert and then turn round and drive back again. Then Max disappears into the desert. Seeing as how Joe’s army made it through the collapsed arch in about twenty minutes the first time, it’s going to be about a day at most before the War Boys come to retake the Citadel, and they’ve got all the weapons and the fighting experience. All Furiosa has now are the children and the starving rabble. Even the Vuvalini all bought it on the return trip, and they were the ones most likely to put up a reasonable defence. They needed some of Thrush’s lasers or something.”
“Mmmfle mumble bumble mmmf.”
“Why can’t women have decent storylines too? Are we supposed to be happy just because we get to drive a lorry for a change?”
“Mmmble mumf.”
“I knew you were going to say that. I never should have brought it up. It’s pointless trying to have a conversation with you.”

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Bathtime chat

Starlings in the bath

“Do you think Hannibal uses TP or a bidet?”
“Excuse me?”
“He’s a serial killer, I know, ‘Don’t eat the rude’ and all that. But he’s, what, an aesthete, right?”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Hannibal Lecter. I just can’t imagine Hannibal Lecter using toilet paper. I mean, what brand would he buy? I don’t think he’d be won over by puppies. Does Claire Fontaine make toilet paper?”
“Is this—”
“Seriously. What’s the most expensive toilet paper you can buy? Also, do you think eating people makes a difference to the consistency of your poop? I can always tell when I’ve been at the suet. It’s just greasier. Don’t you get that?”
“I don’t think—”
“I bet he can tell. I bet he can smell it. I bet if you went to dinner with him and he fed you one of the rude he’d get a sense of satisfaction from smelling it in your farts.”
“THIS IS NOT AN APPROPRIATE TOPIC OF CONVERSATION FOR OUR CHILD’S BATHTIME.”

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A Host of Sparrows

TODAY WE HAVE INTERNET. A ROO, A ROO, A ROOGA.

Thus far in our new house, we have been adopted by the following garden birds:

  • Edgar Allen Notacrow the blackbird and family, who observed us moving in and made sure we knew HE WAS HERE FIRST, SO MAKE SURE YOU BEHAVE BECAUSE HE WILL NOT STAND FOR ANY NONSENSE.
  • Mr and Mrs Splashalot Songthrush. Mr Splashalot has Very Firm Ideas about what constitutes a proper bath. Mrs Splashalot is more restrained and thinks he’s an idiot. She REFUSES to bath with him because he GOES TOO FAR with all his splashing, I mean REALLY.
  • The mountaineering sparrow host, who are determined to scale the house next door without flying, because flying is too easy, any damn sparrow can fly, man, climbing is EXTREME, this is the twenty-first century, where have you been already?
  • Mr and Mrs Coal Tit, late because shopping. There’s a sale on. Don’t look at me like that, of course we need another set of curtains for the parlour, we might have guests, any day now.
  • Mr and Mrs Blue Tit, first to appear. Food out? We eat now.
  • Mr and Mrs Great Tit, a day or two after their smaller cousins, because they needed to make sure the company was appropriate. Heavens, just about anyone could have moved in, one can never be too careful.
  • Mr and Mrs Greenfinch and family, just keeping themselves to themselves, not wanting any trouble here, but if you start anything you can be damn sure they will finish it.
  • Mr and Mrs Dunnock. Mrs Dunnock is adorably heavy with eggs. She is round. NOBODY LAUGH AT HER, ROUND IS A SHAPE.

We are therefore missing yellowhammers, siskins, a pheasant, and goldfinches. I hope we get goldfinches again, I love listening to them churble.

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House Moving Journal. Day 5

Text originally posted via mobile phone at Singularity on April 20th 2015.

Day 5 of no internet and but intermittent mobile signal.

Spiders, woodlice and centipedes have accompanied us on the move and already find new homes in the crevices and corners. Thus far no mice or rats. We have reason to believe the semi-feudal rodent society in our previous abode had reached the terminal stage of decadence. Chocolate and sunflower seeds turned gateway substances to pharmacy grade drugs, which proved, ultimately, to be too much for their tiny, furry bodies. All that remains is a stained skirting board and faint regret about man’s inevitable and inseparable influence on nature.

DON'T PRESS PLAY, YOU FOOL

Especially if it looks like this.

Our own bodies are broken and weary from physical labour. Every strange noise sounds as if an alarm call of something wrong we did not notice when viewing the property. I would be unsurprised to find a crackling tape of a hitherto unknown language concealed beneath a floorboard, and can only trust I would have the sense not to play more than enough to recognise the hazard.

There is evidence the previous occupants hid their penchant for animals and cigarettes under a layer of hastily applied paint. We find feathers and fur in unusual places, wiring duct-taped as if bound for kidnapping, strange marks on and gaps in the skirting.

The stove, too — a great iron beast that has been dirtied and cracked, its interior parts disintegrated from application of heat more intense than it was intended to endure. One wonders what was burnt in there that required so intense a flame. The imagination sets forth down many twisted paths and recoils, peering out from behind parted fingers in ghoulish fascination.

The dishwashing appliance — Oh triumph of modern engineering! — is usable after focused cleaning. The laundry device is functional, but the rubber seal is encrusted with the dehydrated fossil of some black ichor I have thus far been unable to remove. One can only hope it is not the oocyst colony of some terrible, carnivorous slime mould. I almost wept in discovering the steam generator I acquired for such eventualities was defective.

The oven is worse news. Although there is power, the switch on this futuristic, overly complicated machine does not function. I lack sufficient learning to tackle the repair myself. It may require a specialist engineer, an expense for which we had not planned.

More later. I have distracted myself for long enough from the trial of unpacking.

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Sale! It’s a happy place

The last couple of months have been HECTIC. Work has been super-busy, I’ve been struggling to find time for editing and writing, and we’re moving house. I’ve had almost no time for physical exercise, which always makes me cranky, and at times the effort of trying to deal with it all while remaining suitably optimistic when in company has been almost beyond this introvert.

I have a friend whose favourite method of reassurance when things are weighing me down is to say, “A lot can change in a couple of years.” He’s right of course. As if I needed proof, I received some amazing news last week.

My short story She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow was bought by Jason Sizemore for Apex Magazine. This piece means a lot to me, and it would be an understatement to say I’m chuffed to bits. Selling a story to Apex is like nine Christmases and birthdays all rolled into one.

I’d be remiss not to mention the various people whose stellar feedback helped along the way, including Cat Rambo and the other students on last year’s Advanced Workshop, my fellow Orbiter 6 members and, of course, that ragtag bunch of talented reprobates who form the Altered Symmetry crit group.

The pillbox

Yesterday, Frood and I went to the beach to say goodbye to the pillbox. I’ve been taking pictures of the pillbox every now and then since we moved here, recording the changing shape of the dune around and behind it. We’re moving south of the city at the end of the week, so it’s unlikely I will be a regular visitor from now on. I wanted to take one last look, and it was such a beautiful day.

Here’s my happy place. Standing on the beach, toes in the sand, dreaming of other worlds and the words I need to tell them.

happyplace

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Navigating distraction

While I’ve been doing pretty well at keeping up with my short story target, I’ve not been doing quite so well at everything else.

It happens. Life gets in the way. Holding down a full-time job, writing, editing and participating in crit groups, as well as the other things like house hunting, riding my bike and getting out into the sun occasionally for the sake of my sanity all take time. Not to mention eating, sleeping, reading… As important as a social media presence is to the modern writer, I think it’s important to cut yourself some slack. Of all the things for which I could berate myself, not posting as frequently as I intended on my blog is not going to be top of the list.

I’ve been trying different modes of writing this year, sparked by an exercise I completed in one of Cat Rambo‘s classes (very good, I’ve taken a few, do try them). The hypergraphia means I’ve always been a pantser — I get an idea, put pen to paper, the words come out. This is fine, to a point, but the same capacity to dribble countless words directly from my brain onto the page via the medium of pen and ink means I find it really hard to stay on track. As an example, I set out to write a piece of Christmas themed flash for a LTW anthology, and two months later it had turned into a 12.5k word novellette.

For me, the process of writing a story feels like opening a door in one branch of some great, fractal beast, and it’s really difficult to stick to the one little piece. Imagine opening a door into one tiny alveolus then moving further out into the bronciole, the lung, the chest, the person, the person’s family, village, country, world…

When I first started outlining, I tried to write what would happen and it felt awful. I wrote a list, and tried to stick to it, and it was like being surrounded by a wall. I couldn’t see past it. Rather than helping my creativity, it stifled it. Conforming to a list was too much like having to stay on a path even though the best view would be from the other side of the adjacent field. So I gave up, went back to my old method of writing, and was faced with the problem of sifting a coherent story from the mass of verbiage.

Cat also recommended Ken Rand’s the 10% Solution, a recommendation I have passed on to others. For me, most often, staring at the first draft of what was supposed to be 5k and has turned out to be double that, ten per cent isn’t ambitious enough.

I needed to find a happy compromise, and to that end I’ve been playing with mind mapping software.

Being a Scrivener user, I’ve had Scapple for a while, and I really love its simplicity and endless permutations. I would recommend both programs to anyone who likes complete freedom to plot and write. I have been using Scapple a lot for outlining An Elegy in Dustvines, and it has helped enormously.

It’s not the only option. I bought a Samsung tablet last year for editing and proofreading — it’s almost as good as having a printout of a story for catching typos one might otherwise miss — and Scapple doesn’t run on the Android OS. Instead I’ve got both Mindomo and SharpMindMap.

Of the two, SharpMindMap is the closer to Scapple in terms of flexibility. It doesn’t try to hold you to the standard format of a central topic with sub-topics. I prefer not to be confined to that, as I often want to have two separate main threads running parallel, for instance critical points in the story for protagonist and antagonist. The export options are not as good, however.

Mindomo exports directly into Evernote, which is another productivity tool I’ve started using. It can be persuaded to have more than one major nexus in a single project, but it has a tendency to try to join them up again if they are placed too closely together. That said, it’s a good looking app, with some nice themes, it’s intuitive to use, and the export options are very handy.

mindomo

That’s the kind of context map I might produce for a short story. Once I’ve finished sketching out some of these details, I’ll outline the main points of the plot. While this level of detail might be far too much for most people, I find having it set out in my outline helps me keep my imagination in check. Well, not so much in check, but satiated. Without this, I’m far too easily distracted.

I’ve just finished outlining a new story, and today I’m going to experiment with moving directly onto outlining and writing a different new story, just to see what happens (also, deadlines). It will be interesting to see if the detailed outline is enough to hold the story in potentia. I would normally expect the hypergraphia to roll on to something else if I don’t use a story idea right there and then.

It would be nice to find a way of holding onto all of my crazy ideas.

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When the time comes, move with the seasons

It’s a new year already!

I can hardly believe how long it has been since I last updated. Last time I posted anything here the weather was still relatively warm and we’d just had a glorious weekend sea-kayaking off the Banffshire coast. Today the snow is falling, there’s a thick layer of ice outside and we’ve just finished taking another wood delivery.

Keil's Den in Winter
Keil’s Den at Christmas

I’ve been submerged in a number of projects (and life), deep down past where blue turns to black, and it has been impossible to come up for air.

At the end of a year I’m usually given to reflection — to thinking about what went well, what didn’t, what I learned, what I will be able to do better. I’ve not done that, partially because I really don’t want to dwell on the events of 2014 any more than I do already.

Instead I’m going to set out some goals for the following year. After almost two decades in dayjobs that have semi-annual appraisals, the concept of SMART targets is pretty much ingrained. I know I can’t control certain goals in my writing career, no matter how much I want them — for instance, making my first professional sale — because they are dependent on the decisions of others, and I cannot control the decisions of others. I can, however, maximise opportunity for those things to happen, and I can control the various aspects that are solely down to me. With that in mind, here are my targets for this year:

  1. Have something out to market at all times.
    I could specify numbers of pieces, but I don’t want to this year. This was one of my targets for last year, and I didn’t achieve it for various reasons that will be obvious if you’ve been playing along at home. I’d like to achieve a solid 12 months of constant submission before I start giving myself numeric targets.

  2. Complete to first draft at least one short-form story for every month of the year.
    I’m not saying one story per month because that’s too restrictive. If I write three in one month but spend the next two editing, that’s fine.

  3. Complete to first draft one long-form work.
    I have three novel-length projects underway at the moment (two of them have been added to the wordcountometer over on the right there). My target is completion of just one.

  4. Update at least one of my two blogs every other week. (Certainly more frequently than each wood delivery!)

These might seem under-ambitious, but it’s very easy to set targets that are over-ambitious and then become demoralised at failure to achieve them.

SMART = Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic, Time-related. Allowing for the day job (which is going to be very demanding for the forseeable future), other writing/editing-related work, and the other things life throws into the mix (eating, sleeping, health, fitness, etc), as well as allowing for the fact last year was very difficult, I’m pinning my ambitions on a handful of targets I hope are balanced more towards the achievable than aspirational end of the scale.

At the end of the day, aspirations, ambitions, goals, targets and achievements are inter-related, and should be inter-dependent, but should also be viewed as a progression. To use a fitness metaphor, one may aspire to be a strongman, for which one has the ambition of competing in a national competition, the goal of qualifying at a particular local contest, and the target of lifting a specific weight at that particular training session. Targets should be SMART, and they should feed into that progression, otherwise they are distracting or misleading.

Do you have any targets for 2015? Let me know in the comments so I can cheer you on!

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