On an absence of time

It’s hard to believe it’s November already. I don’t know where time has gone.

I realise I haven’t updated this blog since May — it has been even longer since I did anything with my other one — and, for once, I’m not going to hold myself to task over it.

A friend and I were having a glum discussion about boilers the other day, and the terrifying prospect of having to replace one. To give this some context, when Frood and I bought our house in early 2015, we knew it was going to be a bit of a project. We hadn’t realised how much of a project it would turn out to be. As my friend said, being an adult pretty much turns out to be a game of resource management. This house has taken up a lot of resource, in terms of time, energy and money, and between that and the day job there hasn’t been much left. What little I’ve had I’ve put into writing, although the one thing writing needs and I lack is mental energy. It’s hard to write when you can do barely more of an evening then eat and fall asleep on the sofa, and when it takes most of the weekend for your brain to decompress from the previous week.

In our previous house, I used to get up and write before work. Since this house is too far from work to cycle, we were both spending too much time sitting in front of a computer, and not getting enough exercise. My health had begun to suffer, and I know where that leads. Been there, done that, don’t intend to do it again. So while we’re now both getting up super early before work, that time is for trying to undo the effects of spending the rest of the day relatively inactive.

So there we are. Being an adult is a matter of resource management, and I have had barely the resource to write, never mind post to the blog.

And, you know, that’s okay. Having a social media presence is important, sure, but it’s not the critical part of being a writer. What is obligatory is writing (and reading). That’s it. To be a writer, you have to write, and you have to read, and you make time in whatever way you can. I can’t manage Stephen King’s recommended 2000 words a day most of the time, so I do what I can, which is why I’ve managed to complete six pieces this year, including a couple that are bordering on novella length.

In a way, I think that lack of resource has been useful. It’s easier to produce when you have all the time in the world, but it’s also easier to click trance away on some spurious line of research or be distracted by the wonders of the internet. When you are limited for time, and know it, you knuckle down and do the work. Bum on seat, words on page. It’s a bit like a Masterchef challenge in which the contestants have to produce a three course meal in 20 minutes or something else ridiculous. You can’t just work hard, you have to work smart.

One day, I hope that I will have more time to write, but I also hope I can hold onto that lesson of working smart, not just hard, and focusing on what matters.

Conference call

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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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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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