Losing the plot, and finding it again

As you may know, I have hypergraphia. As far as I can tell, I’ve always had it. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t driven to write. I have never been diagnosed with any of the frequently associated conditions.

While I will write on anything, if there is no other option, the relief valve only really opens properly if I’m able to use a very specific combination of pen and paper. What that combination is has changed over the years. The earliest preference I can remember was for wide ruled A4, and some sort of 0.5mm fibre tip. Years later, my preference moved onto a specific weight of narrow-ruled feint and margin A4, and a Bic cristal grip biro. I still have a stash of thirty or so of these pens in a ziplock bag, and find them in random places around the house, even though my preference had changed before we moved here. For a number of years I was using these biros with a black, hardcover Moleskine, and then I obsessed over a Platinum Carbon pen along with the carbon black ink, or a Noodler’s Bulletproof, also in black. Eventually, Moleskin changed the paper they use, and I rekindled my love for different fountain pens and ink. So many inks! ALL THE INK. ALL OF IT.

Frood had to make me some shelves for it all.

I switched allegiance to Lechtturm maybe a couple of years ago, and since then have been filling out page after page of these wonderful notebooks using a variety of fountain pens and inks. I have a taste for sheen but also like a fine line, because I write small. It helps to have pen friends, with whom I can use Tomoe River Paper and broad nibs, and indulge my love of the sheen monster.

My most recent notebook (not to be confused with my commonplace, which is also a Lechtturm, but dotted; or my work notebook, which remains a Moleskine) is a ruled Lechtturm Medium with a delicious metallic copper cover, the first time I’ve used anything other than a black notebook. I carry it with me everywhere, along with about four or five other notebooks of varying purpose. It is a comfort blanket, and a retreat. If I feel that oncoming surge of being overwhelmed, I can dig it out, and just knowing it’s there can be enough to let me continue pretending to be typical. If it’s presence is not enough, then I can allow myself ten minutes to write, and that, along with isolating headphones and a sign on my chair that asks people to leave me alone unless it’s an emergency, usually does the trick.

It’s important, this book. It’s like having a therapist on speed dial. Often, when we’re driving to work, I’ll keep it in my hand instead of packing it in my bag. Like a comfort blanket.

Which brings me to this morning. I had an early meeting, and things to organise, and was on early Floof duty, so things were a bit hectic. We were about to sit down in the car to go, when I realised I’d forgotten my coffee. I dumped my stuff in the back seat, put my notebook on the roof, and dashed back into the house to grab it.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Yes, dear reader, I forgot it. We got about halfway to work when I realised. At this point I thought maybe it was in the car somewhere, maybe under the seat, or I’d left it in the kitchen; but I was still sitting on a big bubble of panic. Imagine leaving your wallet somewhere and not having the option of cancelling your cards, and all the money you had left for the rest of the month was in it with no way to get more. That kind of panic.

When I got home, I shoved Floof in the kitchen, didn’t even feed her (sorry Floof!) and went back out in the car to look for it. Having driven round the furthest I think we could have got without it already having dropped off, unsuccessfully, I returned home and fed the dog. Then I went back out on the bike. It’s slower and has the advantage of height.

I found my notebook. It was in the long grass, about a mile from our door.

A car has driven over it. More than one, probably. Maybe a tractor. I was lucky that we didn’t have any rain today; it has survived remarkably well, although I doubt I’ll be writing any more in this one. I’ll have to cut out the filled-in pages and tuck them in the pocket at the back of the replacement I ordered this morning before I even knew for sure if I’d lost this one.

Another Lechtturm, again in delicious copper. This one will not be permitted any free-range activities. They clearly have the same traffic sense as Floof.

Turning the page – 2016 writing goals

Towards the end of January last year, I posted a note of my writing goals for the year. I declined to review the year that had just been because it had been a particularly difficult one.

I’m not going to dwell on 2015, either, because I want to keep my focus firmly forwards. Still, there’s no point setting targets unless you review how close you came to meeting them.

How did I do?

I didn’t manage having something out to market at all times. Not quite. The process of moving from draft to fully polished piece is still taking longer than I’d like, but that’s fine. I was super close.

I didn’t manage to complete to first draft one short story for every month of the year, but I came closer than I have any previous year, with 6 completed shorts, one novella and one novelette. In terms of non-hypergraphia, stuff I might be able to use word count, I’m calling that target met.

I didn’t get much further with either of my novel projects in terms of words on the page, so I’m out for a duck. It doesn’t mean I didn’t do any work on them, though, and that work will stand me in good stead this year.

I didn’t update my blogs as often as I intended. Although I did up the frequency considerably here, my other blog languished in the doldrums.

That said, we did buy and move into a new house in April, a house that needs considerable renovation, and the dayjob has been inconsiderately demanding (joke — in the current climate, I’m damn lucky to have it). With those two factors running interference, I don’t feel too bad about not fully meeting these targets. The work I have produced this year has been variable, but it includes some material of which I am extremely proud and hope will find a good home someday.

Let’s not forget I made two thrilling sales, to Apex Magazine and Clockwork Phoenix 5. Both of these are dream markets, and I still can’t quite believe it. My story at Apex, She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow, was podcasted, produced by Lisa Shininger. This was the first time I’ve ever heard one of my stories read aloud by someone else, and it’s a strange but exciting experience.

What’s on the cards for 2016?

More of the same, with a few tweaks.

  1. Have something out to market at all times.
    I’ll repeat this goal this year, but I hope this becomes such a fact of life it will no longer be a goal but a state of being.
  2. Complete to first draft at least one short-form story for every month of the year.
  3. Get to grips with flash.
    I’m lumping these together because I’m hoping number 3 will help me achieve number 2. Last year my target was derailed by the hypergraphia’s tendency to go into this weird state of WORDSSSSS, OH YES WORDSES MOAR OM NOM NOM WOOOOORRRRDSSSSESSSSS AWWW YISS MOAR MOAR WORDSES.
  4. Write every day.
    I shot myself in the foot on this one last year by trying too hard to domesticate the hypergraphia. I tried this thing where, if I wasn’t writing something useful, I wouldn’t write at all, thinking that might channel the urge more usefully. PRO-TIP: this does not work. All it does is make the whole process more difficult. If writing means scribbling stuff I can’t use, or sticking pictures into a commonplace and adding labels, that’s fine. It’s all part of the process. To use a triathlon metaphor, I won’t necessarily be squatting or doing deadlifts in a race, but these exercises help build strength, and stronger means more speed and endurance. Just because it’s not something immediately and directly useful doesn’t mean it is worthless.
  5. Finish a novel project.
    I have two on my target list at the moment, of the three in progress, but by the end of the month I shall have settled on one of them and will be making a hard push to complete this year. I already have a strong idea of which one it will be.
  6. Take more classes.
    I don’t think it’s coincidence that I made my first two pro sales on the back of taking almost every class Cat Rambo has to offer. I’m already signed up for Lit Techniques 2, so this will get me off to a good start.
  7. Have another go at poetry.
    I’d like to be a lot better at poetry than I am. Avoiding it won’t change that.

Most of all, I think 2015 gave me a better grip on what I’m good at, on the themes that make the difference between a story that will work eventually, and a story that’s more likely to end up either trunked or ripped into tiny pieces for total reconstruction, and that means a fresh eye for older stories still looking for a home. That’s my main goal for the coming year: put that insight to work.

The Old Man of the Woods
The Old Man of the Woods says, “Your job is to create a space in which it is possible for others to see things differently.”

How about you? Any goals you’d like to share?

Hypergraphia — bleeding inky thought onto paper

I have no fixed process for writing. Stories come the way they come. Sometimes that means a single scene from which I have to uncover the rest of the story like an archaeologist digging up a pot or an ancient skeleton; other times it means sitting down with a pen and paper as soon as I’ve dragged myself out of bed, scribbling furiously while someone tries to ask me what I want for breakfast and whether I’ll be making coffee any time soon.

I keep what is probably some kind of commonplace. In fact, I keep several, and carry all of them around with me along with half the contents of a decent stationery shop, because I become quite anxious if I lack a way of draining the contents of my head at any given moment. I have a cherished, if battered, Timbuk2 El Ocho, which is well overdue for replacement, and it is full of the various things I need to keep the fiction imps at bay while carrying on with the rest of my life.

Most of my work germinates as pen and ink and paper. It used to be the case that every first draft found form on narrow-ruled, feint and margin, before I could begin to type. I still have a lot of material, things that have either not sold yet or never will, stashed around the place. For the sake of speed and saving time, I moved on from writing out the whole thing by hand, but I cannot entirely tear myself away from the pen and paper stage.

Commonplace book
A couple of pages showing the birth of a work in progress

I don’t just keep notes, write down references, quotes, ideas, fragments of sentences that have a shape I want to explore. Sometimes the names of songs, places, even food finds their way in there. I find going about it this way, rather than doing everything by tapping away on a keyboard, helps encourage the creative process and entrains more of whatever engine it is that drags these things from the aether.

The book itself is a large plain moleskine (I also have two ruled, and a plain folio). I use a variety of fountain pens, coloured pens and pencils, Washi tape and Coccoina paste. The intention isn’t to keep a journal, although there are some truly beautiful ones out there (take a look on Pinterest — you’ll find a few on my Pen & Ink board, like this one). Still, the result of all my notekeeping being fun to review means I can happily spend time going back through my stack of notebooks looking at story fragments and ideas.

This practise has proved invaluable to me in greasing the wheels and adding a bit of low-end torque to jolt things out of a rut and free up narrative space. There are times when I need freedom to think, to mull, to plan, to let my subconscious chew on things for a while, or even to have a conversation, make like a sociable human being, but whatever it is inside my head that makes words has the bit between its teeth and won’t let go, even though it’s heading on entirely the wrong track. Cutting things out and sticking them into a notebook might not look like writing, but I can assure you, it is.