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?

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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.

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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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Autumn’s here

It’s that time of year again. I was moving wood from a delivery into the shed earlier, trug by painful trug (the weekend’s sea kayaking has broken me), and a long V of geese flew in overhead. I sometimes wonder why they talk to each other incessantly as they fly. It looks like so much effort to keep those big bodies up, wings incessantly flapping.

There was a second, smaller V, and a couple of geese broke free from this as I watched, trying to join the larger one. I imagined them worrying about directions — they’re all following Jemima, maybe they know something we don’t; maybe Steve doesn’t have a clue where he’s going and he’s going to turn left over there when he should turn right — as they beat the air furiously with those long wings, slightly akimbo in their sprint across the gap, all against a background chorus of slightly squeaky, syncopated honks I could hear before I spotted the birds and long after they had passed.

I felt the season turn a couple of weeks ago, and while I’m sad to see the back of summer, with its sunny beaches, garden barbecues, fledgling birds, wonderful flowers and hazy warm days of having every window open in this granite fridge we call a house, Autumn has always been my favourite time of year. Here in Scotland we often get the best of the year’s weather in a blissful window on the cusp where summer gives way to autumn; it’s as if the sun realises we are given short change on that front (excuse the pun) and throws an extra week or so of blue skies our way just when we think the cold rains have arrived. It’s warm, but not too warm, with cool, crisp mornings and spectacular sunsets.

It’s fungus season, too. I took this picture in Aviemore at the very end of August:

Fly agaric

Fly Agaric is so beautiful when it breaks through its hood, the red still glossy, the cap unblemished.

This one I took in Keil’s Den, Fife, a couple of weeks later.

Cluster of sulphur

These are Sulphur Tufts, named both for their colour and habit of clumping together. I love taking pictures of fungus. They can be so whimsical.

Speaking of whimsy, yet another story that was supposed to be a flash has grown arms and legs. I’m wrestling my way through thick undergrowth to the end, trusting I can cut it back to something manageable once I’m there. While I thoroughly recommend Rand’s The 10% Solution — especially if you often get comments from crit buddies along the lines of overly wordy, padded prose or over-written — sometimes the machete has to come out before the secateurs.

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When short stories aren’t

Although I’ve been putting words on paper since I could hold a pen (I shall dig out some of my earliest journals sometime), I have written purely for myself, not with a view to submitting to market. I started doing that only recently, and I’m still finding out where my strengths and weaknesses lie when writing for others.

Some of them are obvious, such as the struggle I face balancing too much exposition with confusing prose, when part of what I want to do is conjure ambiguous worlds where nothing is definite. My crit groups are invaluable for dealing with these kinds of problems.

Other problems are harder to pin down. My short stories often grow metaphorical arms and legs and tentacles, before ignoring the limitations of limbs and sprouting hyphae all over the place. I end up trapped in something like a web built by a swarm of caffeine-fuelled spiders in a memory palace the size of Hannibal Lecter’s.

If I were writing long form, this would be more useful. Is it, therefore, a good thing or a bad thing? I’m still undecided, but am going to treat it as a good thing for the time being. At the moment, I would rather be in the position of having to cut than to add, except where my crit buddies suggest I can have clarification without straying into wordiness.

A short story I started with a nominal project target of 5,000 words has reached almost 10,000 words with no sign of stopping. It has pages of research and its own Scapple folder. I came back to this piece after several months away from writing, and opened it with a notional inclination towards abandonment. I read what I’d done, and I liked it too much to give up. There’s a story here I want to tell, and whether it ends up as 15k words I cut back to 7k, or 20k I work up to a full length novel, finishing the story at whatever length it turns out to be is something I have to do.

I’ve heard it said that a story ends up the length it needs to be. We’ll call this an experiment.

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NOT AT WORLDCON STOP NEED COFFEE STOP AM WRITING AGAIN DON’T WANT TO STOP

This weekend I should be in London, with thousands of other writers and fans of genre fiction. I’m not. I’m still at home in Scotland, where Summer is packing up the last of his bags and preparing to head south, while Autumn stands on the threshold tapping her foot in her impatience to get onto his wonderful carpets and cover them in kipple.

Back at the beginning of April, my Dad was killed in a motor racing accident in Hockenheim, Germany. I was — am — devastated. The effect has been emotionally overwhelming. For the first time in my whole life, my hypergraphia stopped. It just stopped, as if a switch had flipped into the ‘off’ position. Other than for the day job, I was unable to find it in myself to string words together and put them down on paper. That part of me was numb, unfeeling.

When I forced myself to write, to post on social media, pen a swift report of our inaugural bike ride from Kirkcaldy to Aberdeen, or review a wine for Naked Wines, it didn’t felt like me doing it. The part of me invested in writing had gone on some kind of retreat. I could still put words together, order them grammatically, construct some kind of narrative, assay them for clarity and conciseness, but the results were neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things.

I lost that spark, without which one is not a writer.

For a while I worried this meant I had never been a writer. After all, if it were that important to me, surely I would have carried on despite the grief. Instead I threw myself into triathlon, poring over heart rate charts and race timings. I cleaned my house, decluttered, grew vegetables and flowers, polished my bicycles. Went walking, running, swimming in the sea, paddling.

I’ve hurled myself at anything that constrained me to the Here-Now-Present, because shivering on the other side of a translucent wall of stoicism is an endless ocean of sadness. It leaks tears sometimes, when something happens to bring that loss into my Here-Now-Present.

Writing fiction isn’t Here-Now-Present. It can’t be. It’s anything but Here-Now-Present, and I’ve come to realise it’s the one thing desperately important to me that can’t be condensed into a single mote of ongoing experience.

Writing fiction requires an emotional investment. If you don’t feel your writing, nobody else is going to. My emotions are bruised and swollen and sore; concentrating on physical tasks and pretending I’m fine has been the psychological equivalent of the Rest Ice Compression Elevation approach to dealing with injury.

In the last couple of weeks I have written my first complete story since it happened. It’s not my best piece of work, but it has a beginning, middle and end; conflict and resolution; a character with agency and a certain bleak humour. It’s not the worst thing I have ever written (a label I shall reserve for the Ghostbusters and Blake’s 7 fanfic I wrote when I was at school, before fanfic was a thing). I’ve also picked up a WIP and added some good words — they may not survive the edits, but they are good words. I have submitted a piece to market.

I’m no longer worried that spark is gone forever, which is a small island of relief on that shivering sea.

The lesson here is not that time heals all things — it doesn’t, but it will dull the pain if it can — but that the writer is the most important part of the writing process. You have to look after yourself, and if that means giving up an opportunity because you are not fit, so be it. No athlete would start a race with a broken leg (although he might try to carry on for a while if the injury occurred during it). As much as I really wanted to go to LonCon, I made the right decision.

I could not have coped with WorldCon this year. I am an introvert who works hard at giving the appearance of not being so when it is professionally necessary. It exhausts me. I need to be physically fit enough to tackle the endurance events Summer so thoughtfully brings each year when he sweeps up the leavings of Spring’s exuberance; equally I need to be emotionally fit enough to cope with the mental endurance event of being in the same place as almost 10,000 strangers for 5 days. I am not, and am very grateful to be sufficiently aware of my limitations that I knew better than to try.

Yet, as my writing recovers, and the hypergraphia twitches its millipede feet and considers uncurling to resume its endless meandering around my pathways and byways, I can see a time when I will be.

For that, I am also very grateful.

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