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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Final resolution – REVIEW MORE

I nearly forgot my final goal for this year.

REVIEW MORE.

I read a lot, as any writer should. Our house is one giant library, and there are stacks in my currently-reading and to-be-read piles. I have, however, been very BAD at reviewing the books I read, and the best way of supporting a writer or publisher is to review their output. This is such a good thing to do for the writers you want to support that I thought I’d add it as a separate post. So, if you’re a reader rather than a writer, or a writer who wants to support other writers, do try to review the work you read. If you’ve got your own website, fantastic, but you can post reviews at Amazon, Goodreads or some other curation site if you don’t.

It really does make all the difference.

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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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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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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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A 2013 retrospective

I know it’s traditional to look back on the year somewhat closer to Hogmanay, but I never seem to manage it. I’m either early or late, so this year I’m going to be early.

It has been an amazing and exciting year. I’ve had two stories published in anthologies that have put my work on the same ToC as some great authors (Looking Landwards and Fish), and my work has been reviewed positively. On top of that, I’ve gained experience of the business end of editing and publishing, with a stint as slush reader for the Whitecat Publications science fiction and horror imprints, and putting together the Lemon Tree Writers chapbook Point of Balance. I’ve been on local radio three times (here, here and, most recently, here). I’ve taken part in my first spoken word event, and attended a con for the first time as a writer (complete with book signing).

In my last interview, I was asked what the future holds and where I plan to go from here. In responding I dressed it up a bit, but really it’s very simple: MOAR PLEEZ. More of this would make me very happy.

I feel like a contestant on Masterchef and I’ve finally started to find out what my capabilities are. I’m still exploring where my strengths lie, and figuring out how to address my weaknesses. There is so much more to learn, and so many ways to improve. I have 3 star ambitions, and I’m almost — almost! — at the point of believing my palate can take me there, but there’s refinement needed.

There will be a lot of hard work in 2014, and I’m more than up for that. I’m hoping for a little luck with which to season it.

Looking Landwards at BristolCon

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