Category Archives: Writing

Watching out

Seems like Joseph has got his eye on Christmas.

He recently pointed out to me that if he had a security camera he could find out what Father Christmas looks like. I think it is fair to say that we all already know what Father Christmas looks like, but perhaps he just wanted to catch the guy at work. He was genuinely excited about it. I was impressed that a five year old would think of that.

I pointed out to Joe that if he wanted a security camera the best person to ask would probably be Father Christmas. He is actually happy waiting a year for the results to come in, bless his little stockings minion socks. Joe hasn’t considered that his plan might not work, but so as not to snuff out that little Christmas sparkle I did not mention any of the many reasons that came into my head when he proposed it. I played the cool mum card. The ‘Ok, well, you’d better write him a letter’ card.

And then this evening, Joe got down to business and found a willing parent for spellings, because these things matter when you really want something (it wasn’t me) and came up with this:

Security camera letter

which had been printed and folded and put in an envelope with 55p he had found and labelled:

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So now I am wondering whether to arrange for Father Christmas to reply. I’m afraid to say I already took my 55p back.

In other news, the children did not complete Nanowrimo, but I did. It was exhausting, the month was incredibly busy and I am sure the writing itself is not proficient, but the beginnings are there and my next writing steps are becoming clearer. I have something to work with and am pleased with the progress I made.

 

 

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This month I am putting lots of other commitments on the back burner in order to blitz-write a first draft of my book. Between Monday and Friday I wrote over 12,500 words, and then the washing machine packed up and my presence has been needed at home. I missed Saturday entirely, but I am grateful for the chance to recharge. Writing is incredibly draining, even if you are well-prepared at home and in the task. It has meant being able to get a few more jobs done and to be more present at the village fireworks (rather a good show – over 5000 attending) last night and the Remembrance Day parade this morning (also a very good turnout).

The children have got into the spirit of Nanowrimo too. Joe has written a short story, which I am publishing here for you:

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(c) Joseph Robinson 2015

It reads:

Wos apon e ting thne was a Boi he was clde Joe he staivd up for a Spaiship (peje 1)

he had 2 frens he went too spais wiv his frens (pedije 2).

Here the story ends and we are left waiting for the next thrilling installment, hoping that maybe we can pre-order it on Amazung. I do detect a degree of autobiographical bias, but it is his first work of this length. I want to know more about the frens. What are their names? Did they help staiv up too? Was there a mutiny? When I find out more, I may get around to blogging that too.

Lily has also been writing a book on Mondays to Saturdays this month and is averaging over 100 words per day. I know this because she has been counting her words. On day 1 she didn’t know that you don’t need to number every single word:

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(c) Lily Robinson 2015

I’m not going to give you Lily’s entire story as it is already quite long. And also because it resonates with her own life and it has broken the fourth wall quite early in the story which is frankly quite weird. Despite being set a couple of generations in the future the main characters have already travelled in time to meet Lily and me. (Reading yourself as a character in a story written by someone else is quite a strange experience, I’ll admit). Lily is keen to reach 100 words every day, and yesterday I learned a new trick – sometimes it pays to just write ‘and then another few words’ to lengthen your sentence. She has no writing scruples.

So although I’m not Nanowriting on Sundays, I thought I’d blog a little while my fingers are in full typing mode. They’ve been missing the keyboard today.

After this month, I’ll take a pause and then take the manuscript apart in every way imaginable, working it over and over to get it to the kind of quality I need it to be. I am very excited to be able to do this and to show how passionate I am to get my book out of my head and on to the peje.

Why you won’t be in my story

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To follow on from my last post, I truly am fascinated by people.

And I am writing a book.

The book has characters. Each character has attributes: their looks, their speech, what happens to them, even their name.

So how do I create and fill out characters without using the appearance, words or experiences of people I know? I do not want to be sued for libel or defamation and I certainly do not want to cause upset. So I’ve been coming up with some rules for my work.

Looks and characteristics

1. I can use generic attributes. There is nothing libellous about giving a character a long beard. Or a speech impediment. Or a red face when they get angry. What would be wrong would be to associate fictional attributes with a real person (dead or alive). Details about fictional characters must not identifiably connect with any single source; no one person could claim I was writing about them.

2. I can humanise my characters. Each fictional character has a set of qualities and flaws of their own, just like each of us. Individual hurts, feelings and private agendas, along with what they value and their annoying habits. This combination of qualities and flaws need not match any person I know; I just need a good mix.

3. I can use or avoid stereotypes. So, I would avoid a stereotype where I wanted to make a point – a dramatic clue for the reader. However, I would use a stereotype to aid the flow of the story. It doesn’t need to be a bland or tired character you may have seen elsewhere. Sometimes I get ideas for a character’s personality based on the features of an animal, a musical instrument or a plant. A character based initially on a banana plant may be tall, expressive, easy to peel (an ‘open book’?), prone to pranks and with a silly sense of humour.

Speech and Dialogue

4. Where I am creating dialogue, I can produce original speech. In any case, spoken language in this book needs to be reasonably terse and punchy.

5. Where I want to use idioms resembling those of the historical period, I can alter them for my purposes. I love phrases like “in the spring, at the time when kings go off to war” (2 Samuel 11:1). My narrator sees things from a different perspective to the writer of this phrase, and will put a different interpretation on the world around her.

6. In this particular project I do not need to concern myself with linguistic details of accents or swearing, but I am interested in riddles, memory aids, parallelisms, repetition and multiple meanings. I am keen on close readings of texts and want my work in progress to unlock beautiful linguistic details for readers. The form, as much as the content, is all part of this artistic and creative experiment.

Experiences

7. I could draw entirely on my own experience and memories, making it an utterly self-absorbed and painfully autobiographical tale, but we all know that is not a clever solution. My characters must be absorbing and irritating in their own right. Perhaps they have no children. Or many children. Or six toes. Or they wake before dawn. I do not identify easily with these things, but I can use observation and imagination to fill in the gaps in my experience. I can listen to those who know and keep learning.

8. My story is based on characters you can read about in the Old Testament, and it is not for me to tell you whether they were real or not. Make your own mind up on that. However, I made the conscious decision at the beginning of the writing process that I could not use a living person’s story. I value people too much to take real experiences of pain or loss and bastardise them into something I could assert was new. Elements of my story could look familiar to some who know me, but they may only be included if the experiences are not unique to individuals and families. Plot detail must be based on the text I am working to or its time period, or be original material inspired and created in the process. Many of my elements come by merging a couple of ideas together or by taking a thought for a walk. They arrive when I least expect them and need noting down before they walk off again without saying goodbye. Some of the best ideas come utterly uninvited but still stand the tests of rewriting.

9. This exercise is not about therapeutically working through a set of my own emotions (I’ve already done that) but about finding ways to express truth – using story. Healing truth. It would be rather silly therefore to create wounds in the process. When the time comes, I want to run the manuscript past people whose own experiences may come close to those I am writing about, because they will resonate the closest and can tell me where I am wrong.

Names and Naming

10. Some of the characters have names straight out of the Old Testament text I am working to (one is altered deliberately, with a shortening).

11. All names have to be appropriate for the time period, so no Jacks or Kates. Some of the names around at the time happen to coincide with names of people I know or are related to (including my mum). Where I want to use a name which happens also to be a name of a contact, I need to be wise to how it could be interpreted.

12. There is a case for inventing names – I’ve researched naming patterns in the Old Testament and the results are fascinating. I could use animal names, place names or word names for new characters and not break my own rules. I could even use the OT patterns of names closely tied with their characters’ stories if I felt that was helpful. I could translate all the names into their English equivalents (for example, Deborah: Bee), but I have decided that would not necessarily make things easier for the reader.

So I hope you will be pleased to hear that you won’t find yourself in my story. You should find truths which apply to many people and these elements are part of what makes a story gripping and dramatic. In fact, I hope you will find elements which do resonate, as I believe that identifying common experiences can help unite and heal.

Plot-chasing

Those good people instant gratification monkeys over at Google have found a new way to delay fruitful work the world over by making it possible to find a place on a map and convert it into your own little Pac-Man game.

Here, for your further edification procrastination therefore is a beautiful part of Prague. You might observe the Staroměstské náměstí complete with monument to Jan Hus, stunning six-hundred year old astronomical clock, cafes, galleries and ecclesiastical architecture. I commend it to you. Watch out for Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde however; these pixel-golems have no scruples in ruining your day as you try and negotiate the narrow streets and keep finding yourself back where you started without much of an idea how that happened.

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What has this got to do with plot-chasing?

Well, to follow up my previous post and because there is an apparent market for updates in my work (read: accountability by any means necessary) I thought I’d let you in on a bit of what I’ve been doing. What I’ve been doing, that is, when I haven’t been assessing locales worldwide for hilarious Pac-Man routes. Is Pac-Man supposed to make you hungry? I do hope Google keep this fun going after 1st April.

Plotting is going more slowly than I had hoped. I had been working on a self-imposed discipline of a scene a day, given other demands on my time. Early drafts: all terrible but useful for working forward. And no, you may not see them. However, it was becoming apparent that I might actually need to decide what material may actually be suitable in the story. I’m not really a ‘Start at the very beginning’ kinda gal. But I do know a couple of my characters really well now and some of the plot elements and some twisty bits and a number of the names and I think I know where I want to end up, but some of it is still up for discussion and plays around in my head every night like a game on a loop. And all the while Blinky is following me like some lost stag party, Pinky keeps getting in my way at the pace of a guided tour group, Inky wants to sell me something I’m not convinced I really need and Clyde needs his mummy.

I decided to research how to plot, and discovered that Someone Who Knows suggests that I need to map it all out very tightly. And Someone Else Who Also Knows says otherwise and that I need to start with my characters and see where they take me. I’ve been listening to my characters very closely, but I don’t think they know as much as they ought to because they keep doing silly things and I suspect I need to Take Charge a little more and the characters aren’t going to like it. However, the main reason the plot is going slowly is because I have to plot in parallel, and I’ve been putting that off.

My book is telling two things at once (to my knowledge; perhaps more to anyone who ever gets to read it). There is the surface plot, which ought to abide by regular modern rules of plottage. And there is a secondary pattern, informed by ancient rhetoric devices pertinent to the setting. It makes sense in my head and in what I want to achieve. However, squaring these two ‘plots’ off means being prepared to step out of my two-dimensional Pac-World and view the story from a lot of different angles to get the best measure of How To Go About This Best. Like Sudoku in 3D. Or finding your way around Real Prague, by memory.

Alongside these plot questions, I am still working through questions of detail which may impact so closely on the writing style and voice(s) of my narrator that all I have written thus far may need serious editing at the very least. This is fine, but an early answer to this one may save a lot of time later.

And I have much more research to do as I progress. I am dealing with a time in history which is rich and fascinating, in a place very different from what I know best, but I am a stickler for anachronisms. I want to know that I did my utmost to get the details right. Some of my early scenes may only be practice runs as I am learning how to put things together and I take various creative liberties. Notes on what is based on something We Know as opposed to something I Thought Sounded Right need to be updated as I go, at least for my own sanity. Despite a Master’s in this period I feel I know very little and have been working on revising my ancient language skills, visiting museums, looking up various details online and turning thoughts over and over. One character has a condition I know little about and a friend has lent me a lot of books I need to go through.

It sounds as if I have done a lot. If only that were true. I have not written enough, but I want to improve that, ideally by having a map of what must be achieved and a fair idea of what I can and cannot actually manage. I cannot eliminate everything that absorbs my time as a mum, so progress is slow. Blinky and Pinky and the rest need feeding, transporting, attention. In every direction plot points of the story need processing, moving around, gobbling up ……

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… I want to travel every road, however travelled it may be. I think some of my characters want to as well. However, I can only do one road at a time. The process is rather iterative and once I have it sussed out I will be able to write a book about How Not To Do It.

That is, if I manage to work out how.

Reality and Writing

Ah, the blog. I have not forgotten you. I have been pursuing Exciting Other Things. I have missed you though, so I will post an update.

The first Exciting Other Thing is my health. Having made great progress mentally and because the timing is well-suited, I am now working on my physical health. I won’t bore you with details and numbers, but I am excited because we are making a number of small but significant changes to our diet as a family and I am already seeing results.

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For starters this sort of thing is not allowed. Neither is it allowed for pudding.

I’m being kind to myself and not overly dogmatic. The occasional chocolate at the weekend is fine. No snacking between tasks however, unless it is at least very healthy and preferably dull. And no customary late night nibbles, which had a lot to answer for. We’ve surprised ourselves by enjoying making and eating new recipes with strange ingredients like low-fat natural yogurt, roasted vegetables, pine nuts and oats. Not all together of course: Change 4 Life have some lovely ideas. I’m tracking my alcohol intake with a phone app and getting more exercise because my body is asking for it. There is an excitement in getting relegated jeans back into circulation, and exhilaration in getting the circulation going on foot or on the bike. I can work harder for longer and am getting lighter.

I believe that the results I’m seeing so far are because I am valuing myself more and because I am being driven spiritually rather than emotionally to improve my health. Listening to my body in parallel to listening to God. A verse which has meant a lot to me in the past few weeks is 2 Timothy 1:7: For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

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So now I have the self-discipline not to make a dog’s dinner of dinner.

The second Exciting Other Thing is my husband’s new job. Having been at British Telecom for his entire working life and having moved last August to Cambridge, my very clever man landed himself a new job with the leading provider of application-intelligent networking I/O software and hardware that accelerate, monitor and secure network data… the pioneer in high-performance, low-latency 10/40GbE server networking solutions. Yep, I pasted that in. Despite being one quarter engineer I still haven’t worked out what he is going to be doing. But he will be able to cycle there and be home more at the right times and move on with his career and all these are very good things. Also he has wisely decided on a few weeks between jobs to be with the family, which is superb and exciting and warrants getting our passports updated. Even more cause for celebration.

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The third Exciting Other Thing is my library. Since we moved I have spent parts of each week preparing my writing space. It is the size and shape of a long garage and needed to fulfil various purposes. Deals on Ebay and Gumtree have lined the walls with second hand pine bookcases, a stripped pine desk and a recycled whiteboard for plotting and organising. There are strategically arranged maps and children’s art and memories around and everything has a home. It is a haven and my own little library-office. Although work on it is ongoing it is functioning and practical. This week I got two old but comfortable office chairs for a pound and, having shared my workspace all winter, I have finally evicted my guinea pig roomies. It is much quieter and less sneezy now. Far from being a distraction, creating a place I can work in properly is getting real results.

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Which all leads to the fourth exciting thing. Actual Writing.

I love writing. I love the relief it brings when words play fair. To me, there is nothing so gratifying as wrangling a complex thought into submission. There is a delicious moment of proposing order. Of saying to the chaos ‘be still‘.

If it weren’t for my time of illness punching all productivity out of me I would not have taken my passion seriously at all. Our choices on many levels took much evaluating. Assessing what I was doing – and by what authority – unlocked something special for me. I had always respected words and enjoyed playing with ideas and the power of texts. I was aware that the hunt was rarely successful without much hard work and I pondered what it might mean to commit time to something which did not promise to deliver. I do have a teaching qualification; in the future it may be necessary to fall back on it, but I am not passionate about maths teaching. I am passionate about communicating well and passionate about the subjects I want to communicate and the power of story.

There is a steep learning curve ahead and everything that has led us to this point adds to the richness of the journey. To learn to tell truths in a story, by way of a thousand lies. To wrestle with structure and awful early drafts. To find, within a character and a plot, timeless truths which may heal, challenge and delight.

I am practising allowing my thoughts to explode creatively again, now that I have finally learned how to keep them focused. Oh yes, there is still so much more for me to learn about writing fiction. Reading great literature is proving rewarding, but recognising great art is daunting too. I am not competing with anyone and I am not actually desperate for publication. I just want to pursue a passion which will not leave me alone. The conviction that accompanies the task is as intoxicating as the relief when words appear in the right order.

With order, discipline. Perhaps it would be good to get in the habit of blogging on a regular basis as part of my new discipline. A weekly round up on a fixed day. Or a series on things I am researching. Or on the process of writing, parenting and life in general. Comments on this are welcome. I cannot promise long blog posts weekly, but I am interested to know if others would like to hear more frequently from me.

Plotting and Pantsing

Some writers like to do it by the seat of their pants. This is an acceptable and way of producing a book, especially if you are giving yourself a whole November to get a first draft. But it is not my way. I am a plotter. I like to know what is going to happen three nexts away in my story – forwards, backwards and sideways. I get excited by detail and confused by chaos. I create well within limits and I like my limits.

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I have been surprised in my own life how much I have had to resort to Pantsing though.

I so wanted life to take a neat trajectory.

Instead, God allowed me to use years in ways which were not neat. He chose to allow me blessing at times I did not choose.

He removed people from me. And added new ones in.

He did not allow me to write my own life plot. Crazy; instead I have found more joy in living by the seat of my pants, by grace, one wriggle at a time. Am I grateful for that? The jury is still at odds. On my light days I imagine I would have been good at plotting my own story. I concede I probably would have been aimless and partial to digress on my more truthful days. Digression is a large part of my being and tethering it creatively gives me the tension I need for living well.

The book I am working on draws on my study, observations and life experiences so deeply that I fear I actually will need to live quite a bit larger, but this is where Pantsing comes in really helpfully. I can Plot as much as I like, but the work is organic and disorganised. I flit between researching character, history, theories, conjecturing, imagining and storyline and there is little plan to How I Plot. I find my method for Plotting is actually Pants.

Is there a problem with that? I don’t think so. The process is iterative. What I learn along the way informs how I do what I do next. Drafts are essential.

Also real life is essential and real life brings boxes that need unpacking, bottoms that need wiping and tears that need crying. I don’t believe any of that is wasted. If I am allowed, I may even be able to draw on the richness and mess of real life to write a more valuable book. You cannot plot everything.

Plot

I am working on plot. Just came across this.

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