Training myself to plan

I’ve done a draft or two of Gods Versus Heroes now (it’s hard to count just how many, because I don’t get properly to the end before starting on the next one, so each one gets a little further through before I go back to the start).

I’ve done a rough nano draft, and I’ve done a more careful draft. Now I want to really pull it apart and weave the storylines together properly, rather than allowing them to come piecemeal. I’ve got seven main characters, each of whom has their own story arc. There’s the story arc of the guild. There’s the story arc of the world they travel to, and the story arc of our own world. I make that ten arcs to manage.

I was thinking just now of how hard it all is, and how I’m going to manage to go through this every single time. And then I remembered when I first went into sixth form at school. Suddenly, instead of having homework to be completed the next day or the day after, I would have up to a week to complete a piece of work, or I would have ongoing work to do, in order to keep up with class. I found it really hard to keep track, and to remember what had to be in when.

So I invented a new kind of calendar. I had several sheets of paper fastened together, and divided into seven sections. Each day I would tear off a section, to reveal the day for the following week. I used this for a few weeks, so that I could always see exactly one week ahead, and then I found I didn’t need it any more, because I’d started to think ahead.

That’s what I need to do now. Yes, I need to pull everything apart and really go at it laboriously, and it will take a lot of time and effort. But the more I work at it, and the more frequently I do it, the easier it will become, until I have the method sorted and I can put it all together much more easily.

I need to train myself into the proper way to plan. That’s all. It will come.


Arguing with the voices

I’ve spoken before about two of the voices in my head – there’s Annie, my inner child, who is always looking for fun, and Betty, who’s my inner parent, always serious and stern and negative. As I woke up this morning they were both arguing with me, and both had the same aim in mind – to stop me from going out for a run.

Annie was complaining that she didn’t want to go, she’d much rather stay home and play computer games. Much more relaxing, much more fun. Betty was reminding me of the work I had to do. Wouldn’t it be much better to stay at home and get some of that out of the way? Time to relax later.

With them both ganging up on me, it would have been easy to give in, but I pointed out to Annie that games are much more enjoyable when they come in small doses, and going out for a run is fun too. Besides, it was long slow run day, so no time pressure. To Betty, I pointed out that if I don’t get enough exercise I work more and more slowly, until I grind to a halt. Much better to sharpen the metaphorical axe by going out for some exercise.

With both of them silenced for long enough to get me out of the door, I did settle down and enjoy my run, and am now working hard with the thought of a little gameplay over lunch to keep me going. But one thing I did realise during my run was that they were trying the same technique to stop me writing.

I’ve spent the past week or so going through my novel and identifying major weaknesses that need to be dealt with. Now Annie keeps complaining that it’s not fun any more, she’d much rather do something different rather than keep on with the same old thing. Betty backs her up by claiming it’s not likely to be any good anyway, even if I do manage to finish it.

So I’m now telling Annie that after the 1st October I’ll be working on the planning of a new novel ready for nanowrimo, and if she wants to do anything new before then there’s nothing stopping me doing that as well as the novel. To Betty, I pointed out that this novel started as a bit of fun, a training piece, and I’m surprised myself at how far I’ve managed to take it. It might not ever get to the point where I’m completely satisfied with it, but just like marathon training, it’s the endurance that’s the reward, and the final result is just a celebration of that reward.

I love the way that my writing and running play off each other, and how I can apply lessons from one in developing the other. And so hopefully, I’ve got the voices on my side for a while and can get back to making good progress.



Writing about war and hate

My current concern is that my novel needs to include more violence and hatred and religious intolerance. It’s never easy to think about those topics, and never easy to write about them, but in order to have the impact I want it to, my novel needs to push a lot harder into that area.

Sadly, I find I get all the inspiration and ideas that I need on the topic by reading news websites. We seem to be particularly nasty and intolerant as a society at the moment. It’s sobering to think that however much we protest about the holocaust, people are making similar comments about those caught up in the immigrant camps to those made about the Jews when the Nazis were in power. History is repeating itself, and those who are enacting it are either oblivious of the irony or don’t care.

One big topic these days is the phenomenon of white male privilege. How being born male and with a white skin gives advantages that these people are not even aware of, leaving others struggling in their wake. The privilege I’m seeing at the moment is one of being born in a developed country that’s fairly well off and fairly stable politically. That doesn’t make us better people than those who live in war-torn countries, or developing countries. Don’t we have a duty to share what we have, to make the most of our privilege to help others onto the same level?

Instead, we’re polarizing into us and them, friend and foe, judgement and condemnation. Any small act is publicised and either praised or condemned almost universally. We can’t make a mistake without it being held up for all to see and criticise. We can’t do some small kindness without it being lauded by complete strangers. We can’t see the true enemies because we’re too busy hating those we are told are enemies.

And so, as I struggle with my novel, one thing that keeps me going is the thought that maybe, in some small way, it might make at least one or two people think about what makes an enemy, what’s the purpose of war, and who are the true heroes.


The painful way

It’s partway through August. And that means there’s only about ten weeks until November. Since last November, I’ve been busy working on a novel, and I’m currently trying to finish it in order to get planning for this November, because, as surely everyone in the writing world knows, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Some people seem to think nanowrimo is a bad idea. Some people think it means a flood of badly written stories into the world. I don’t doubt that there are those who whack out 50,000 words in November and consider it ready to publish. I don’t doubt that some of them are even correct (those irritating people who can whack out a readable story in a month – gah!), while many more are far from finished, and many will be shoved in some metaphorical drawer and never looked at again.

So what’s wrong with that?

A friend wrote a blog post in support of nanowrimo, and as I read it, I was thinking that if it wasn’t for the yearly torture she was speaking about, I could live a peaceful life without struggling to finish my novel.

But then again, if I gave up running, I wouldn’t have to worry about how far to run or how fast to run or how fit I am.

Giving up running and writing would make my life a lot easier, a lot less painful. In the short term at least. But I’ve seen what happens when I stop running. I start struggling to maintain an even mood, I start getting stiff and uncomfortable, and I sit around doing nothing. Stopping writing has the same effect on me mentally.

So giving up, while it sounds easier in the short term, really isn’t. And so I continue the painful way, because the pain of being creative and the pain of physical exercise are nothing like the pain of stopping.

I’ve done nano for about 10 years now, just like Elizabeth Haynes. Unlike her, I haven’t made the most of the rest of the year, and I can’t speak of publishing contracts and best sellers. But I have learned a lot about myself and about the writing process, and who knows? Come back and talk to me in another 10 years and I might have a different story to tell.

In the meantime, I’ve got a fight scene to write for my novel. The one I thrashed out a first draft of last November. The one that’s grown from the original 50,000 words to over 85,000 words so far. The one that’s 1/2 to 2/3 complete. The one that represents the furthest I have ever got in a writing project.

The only reason I’ve got that far is the constant inspiration, support and encouragement that comes around each year in the form of nanowrimo and hangs around in the form of my writing buddies.

Nanowrimo isn’t for everyone. I totally get that. But for many people it provides the inspiration and the permission that the rest of the year withholds. They don’t need the negativity of those who don’t get it. If you love it, do it. If you don’t, then please let the rest of us get on with it.

As for the running, I’m giving up – on worrying about my speed. Who cares if I ever again run 5k in less than 30 minutes? If I’m happy running, and I’m happy covering longer distances, then that’s up to me.


Seldom or rarely

As a child, I was a voracious reader. Although I could not read before starting school, it didn’t take long before I was devouring book after book. I remember my first Famous Five book – it was book eight of the series, where the children are kept prisoner within the gardens of a large house. Dick escapes by hiding in the boot of a car and sneaking out, then climbing out of the boot of the car and running, stiffly and painfully, to the nearest police station, while being chased by the bad guy.

I remember one afternoon when I read two Secret Seven books in the one reading session.

I remember one of the Famous Five books, where it said that George seldom watched television.

That particular experience stands out for me, because I had to ask what “seldom” meant. I was told it meant “rarely”. That confused me, because I found it hard to understand the point of having two words that meant exactly the same thing.

I guess that was my first real experience of the wonderful, complex, confusing world of the English language.

Another reading first was Saint Overboard, a book by Leslie Charteris. I must have been around 9 or 10 years old. My father was always reading Saint books. I imagined they must be some sort of religious books. Then one day I was waiting for the bathroom and sat on the stairs. Next to me was a copy of Saint Overboard, my father’s latest read. I idly picked it up and read the first couple of pages.

I became utterly and completely hooked.

I’ve looked back at those pages since, and I’m not sure what drew me to them, unless it was just the sheer magic of discovering that a book written for adults could be just as easy and entertaining to read as books written for children.

Regardless of why I found the book so magical, I kept reading that one, read the others in my father’s possession, and for the next few years would hunt down any more in the series that I could find. When visiting secondary schools, when it was time to choose where to spend the next seven years of my life, I was happy with the school chosen because I found in their library a couple of Saint books I hadn’t yet read.

I still have a big box of Saint books upstairs, and Simon Templar is still my favourite fictional character. I never really got on with the TV series, and the movie that they attempted to make recently was an absolute farce, having nothing in relation to the book character other than the name.

Books are magic, and kids who don’t read for pleasure are missing out on so much. I’m glad to say that all our children (who are no longer children!) have grown up enjoying reading.

I don’t read quite as much these days; or at least, having achieved my childhood dream of being paid to read, I’m a lot more fussy over what I read for pleasure. It’s far rarer now for me to become so involved in a book that I’m swept along, forgetting everything but the words on the page. As a writer, I’m constantly analysing the books I do read, trying to figure out the spell that keeps me reading and involved.

But every so often a gem comes along. And I’m grateful.


Earth closets

I spent a pleasant few hours in the archive room today – I was making my way through a huge tome that was the minutes of the meetings of the Board of Guardians of Blean Union Workhouse from 1883 to 1886. It really is a magnificent book, about 18 inches tall and six inches thick, all handwritten in exquisite handwriting (which actually inspired me to order a new calligraphy pen; we’ve really lost the art of beautiful handwriting these days!).

Each entry begins with details about the date, the purpose of the meeting (usually the ordinary Board meeting), and who was present. The accounts are detailed, and then any correspondence dealt with. These meetings were held every two weeks, and each entry consists of around four or five pages.

I found myself focusing on the Guardians themselves on this read, wondering who these people were who had such power in their hands, what they thought of the Inmates and their duties, and what type of person they were. Some names were familiar to me. Names such as Iggulden and Wacher are still known in the local town as businessmen. Prescott-Westcar, the then owner of Strode Park (the local large estate), showed up as a Guardian partway through, although he doesn’t seem to have attended the Board meetings.

They were obviously shrewd businessmen, who believed in getting value for money. I came across an ongoing argument with a firm who had repaired the cooking equipment, and put in a bill for £53. Messages went back and forth, asking them to account for the cost, and as their claims did not tally with what the Master believed had been done, instructions were given to pay £43 rather than the total price.

There were several complaints to local tradespeople (especially the baker) for inferior quality goods, ranging from bread and flour (unsuitable for use) to problems with a coffin (although later the tradesman was allowed a small sum for a nameplate for each coffin).

The plumbing was a big issue. There were three water closets, one being by the Board room, one on the Elderly Women’s landing and one on the Elderly Men’s landing, and several earth closets. During the period I looked at, arrangements were made for modifications to the building, adding a drying room for the laundry, a drying room for earth for the earth closets, and new earth closets (Moules’ earth closets) to be built on the boundary of the property.

There were problems with the building works, when the builder who won the tender with the lowest price asked for an extra £15, and was not only told no, but had the tender taken away from him, and then later when the builder in charge was slow to complete the works.

There were problems with the Medical Officer not attending to a Pauper, and various other complaints, so that he was asked to resign and a new officer found. One of the Receiving Officers died unexpectedly, and a new one was appointed – he also took on the duties of registration of births and deaths in the district, and administering vaccinations.

There were a few pieces of good news – on a few occasions a note of thanks was made to local residents for gifts of books or periodicals for use by the Inmates, and when one lady was thanked for playing the Harmonium at services, she replied that the instrument was becoming worn out. She was despatched to a music shop in Canterbury to choose a new Harmonium, at a cost of £14.

Having looked at the names of the men attending the meetings, and noting that John Collard consistently attended the meetings as their Chairman, and was elected unanimously every year, I was surprised to notice that in August 1885 he was missing. At the following meeting, two weeks later, the Board were expressing their shock at his death, and sending condolences to his family.

So it seems these men (yes, all men, as far as I could see) worked hard to ensure the Inmates received what was due to them. They claimed support from locals who had family in the Workhouse (although one man was excused when it was revealed his wife had committed adultery) and arranged for movement between Workhouses where appropriate, people being sent to their own area for support where possible.

The only direct mention of any of the Inmates I’ve been researching was when the eldest of the five orphans was apprenticed to a local builder, but it was interesting to read the reports of the papers being signed.

It’s been a long time since I last went to the library to do some research, but I do enjoy it, and I do feel these people’s stories, so meticulously recorded, deserve to be told. I really must make the journey more often.


Back to the workhouse

It’s been a long time, but next week I’m hoping to get back to the library for some more research on Blean Union Workhouse. I started the project by researching specific people who were in the workhouse on a specific date. Having managed to get quite a long way in tracing their stories, I turned my attention the workhouse itself.

The problem that I’m having, apart from the fact that the library is nearly an hour’s drive away, is that there is so much material it’s hard to know where to start and what to pull out. There are many huge books that are handwritten minutes of the Guardians’ meetings, containing regular reports on the financial status and also correspondence and other notes. There are files of letters. I’ve already spent time ploughing through the admissions registers.

There is so much data there, but the challenge is pulling useful, interesting information from it. Bearing in mind that it’s all hand-written, sometimes difficult to read, and individual resources are not indexed, I’m reduced to reading, making notes of interesting anecdotes within the records and looking for some sort of narrative thread.

I’m trying to concentrate my search around the 1880s to 1890s, as that’s when the families I researched were there, but I’m wondering whether I should try to make it a general history of the workhouse as well. There is a thesis available on the workhouse, but that seems to concentrate on earlier times, and sets the workhouse in the context of the society surrounding it, rather than focusing on the workhouse itself.

On the other hand, what in that history is likely to be interesting and relevant to readers? I can’t imagine that a detailed record of the finances would be interesting to read, and I don’t have the ability to pull out the deeper significance of them anyway. I’m interested in stories about the people, but such stories are likely to be short anecdotes rather than a long cohesive thread.

Any suggestions would be very welcome. In the meantime, I need to find the information I need to book a desk and order a resource for next week’s planned visit.


Making real progress

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but I’ve been busy elsewhere. On Saturday I declared Part 1 of Gods V Heroes to be finished (at least for this draft) and printed it out. Yesterday, I did the same to Part 2. Now there’s only Part 3 to finish off.

I’m not saying it’s complete, or brilliant, but I am saying that I’ve got it to the point where I want feedback from a beta reader or two before continuing. I’ve also been working on it consistently since November, and so would appreciate a break from it for a while, preparing for this year’s nanowrimo.

It feels like I’ve been working on this forever, but in reality it’s only nine months. I’d like to be able to produce my writing a lot faster than that, but it’s a good start – and better than the several years in which I’ve been working on the babies idea.

It’s been great fun working on this novel, with its large cast, and I’ve learned a lot. I’m hoping that a lot of that learning will be carried forward, so that the next is produced more efficiently, with better writing in less time.

Will I publish this one? That depends partly on feedback from beta readers, but at this point I think I’ll probably try to get it polished as much as I can and then test the waters. I fully intend publishing under a pseudonym, so there’s not much to lose, and at least it would give me practical experience of that side of the publishing world as well.

Will I have it edited first? I’ll definitely enjoy testing the waters and seeing what an editor can offer. The rest will depend on funds and prices and services, but I certainly intend to look into professional support.


The learning curve is a treadmill

I spent the day wrestling with software, achieving in the day about half of what I could have achieved in a couple of hours using software I’m already familiar with. It brought home to me something I’d been thinking about this morning, in relation to my running. The learning curve is a treadmill.

You know how we talk about something having a steep learning curve? It’s not just climbing up the slope that’s the problem, it’s also not slipping back down. It’s very easy, when learning a new skill, to put minimum effort into it, so that you don’t actually improve. Instead, you remain at the frustrated stage, until eventually you give up completely.

It’s important to put enough effort in to make progress up the slope. If you’re regularly using your new skills, and building on them, then eventually you will reach the top of the slope and it will all be a lot easier.

It’s exactly the same with my novel. I’ve reached a stage now where there’s lots still to be done, but I know what it is. I could amble along, picking it up now and then, doing a few bits and then forgetting about it again for a while. But I know that if I do that, I’ll keep losing the thread, losing enthusiasm, the words will stop flowing and eventually I’ll grind to a complete halt.

It’s so easy to struggle on the old way, because learning is an effort, and ignore the benefits that learning will bring. But I’m determined that I will soon be able to use this new software to produce well laid-out books for print, and that means that I need to be prepared to take longer at this stage.

And in the same way, I’m going to put in the effort needed for running and for my novel, so that rather than staying at the same level or drifting below, I can really make progress.


Routine is key

I’ve known for a while now that routine is key to getting things done. It’s no good hoping it will get done at some point; if it needs to get done, build it into a routine and stick to the routine, until it gets to the point where it’s easier to do it than to break routine.

I’ve struggled recently to find time for my own projects. During nanowrimo week, I’d quite happily sit and write in the evenings, but that stopped working on 1st December, with the distractions of preparing for Christmas and then everything else that turns up.

I’m busy working during the day, much as I sometimes feel like ignoring everything else and getting on with writing. Early in the morning is exercise time – by 8:30 today I’d already done half an hour in the gym, half an hour in the swimming pool and taken the dog for a walk.

But over breakfast, and before I start work, I’ve started opening up Scrivener and reading through my novel, seeing where I’ve got up to, what sections are missing and what sections need tidying. That seems to work much better for me, and I usually end up doing more than just reading through. And then often I’m thinking about it during the day and ready to continue working on it in the evenings.

Friday lunchtimes is another part of the routine. I finish working at lunchtime, then take my notebook down to a local cafe and sit there with a mug of tea and a plate of chips, and work.

If I find my concentration waning towards lunchtime, that’s my cue to get up and start doing some housework before preparing food. Same in the early evenings, and any other time I’m not fully focused and productive. This means I have less to feel guilty over when I do sit and write.

And so the routines gradually improve and I gradually get things done. Still aiming to have a complete, readable draft of my novel ready as soon as I can. It’s starting to drag on far too much, and that’s how these things sabotage themselves. I need to get back to the babies story, and I need to know I have this one ready to rest.

Within the next six weeks is my target timeframe. Then a couple of months to get back to babies and a couple more to start thinking about the next nano project.

All very well, but that does mean I have to keep focused, head down and working. So teabreak over!