Determination

Okay, it’s time I got myself into gear. Whatever I want, I’m going to have to go out and get it. No one is going to hand it to me. So by a month’s time I’m going to fit into my running clothes a little better, I’m going to be at least walking parkrun, I’m going to have completed a draft of a new novel, I’m going to be in a proper working routine, with housework fitted in, and I’m going to be using my time more effectively.

How does that sound for a promise?

 

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Reaching Nirvana

Way back in the 80s, I owned my first computer. A ZX81, the first computer small enough and cheap enough to be of interest to the casual home user. It came with a massive 1k of RAM, expandable to 16k with a RAM pack.

As you can imagine, programming it was a tricky job. There were games available to buy, loading from a cassette tape player, and some of them were actually pretty good, keeping me entertained for hours. But there were also loads of magazines to buy, each containing listings for programs for you to type in and save on your own cassette tapes. Some of these games were pretty nifty, but one in particular has stayed with me all these years as a metaphor for life.

The aim of the game was to reach Nirvana. You would start in the middle of a grid, and could move north, south, east or west, via arrow keys. Each turn, you would move one step, with the idea of reaching Nirvana. When you thought you had reached it, you would enter a different command.

Every time you said you thought you’d reached Nirvana, guess what? You had.

So you could wander the grid for hours, visiting every square, or you could declare you’d reached Nirvana on the very first turn. Either way, you would win.

Pretty silly game, really.

And yet…

Isn’t that true of life, sometimes? That we can wander around all our lives, looking for something mysterious, waiting to discover our purpose, trying to find happiness? And all we have to do is to make up our minds that this, here, right where we are, this is where we’re meant to be, and what we’re meant to be doing.

Okay, it might not work for everyone, or all the time, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that more often than not, we’re still wandering when actually we’re already there.

 

No perfect way for all

I’ve just finished reading On Writing, by Stephen King, which I reviewed on my business blog. I also attended an art class this morning at the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery in Margate. In both cases, an expert was explaining how he does what he does; Stephen King explains his writing process, and what he feels is important, and my art tutor was demonstrating how he draws a portrait and different techniques that can be used.

I realised something as I watched the face gradually coming to life: every artist or writer has their own way of doing things. Stephen King believes plotting is clumsy and the story should develop organically. Other writers will insist on a tight outline. My tutor was putting smudges on paper that looked like nothing at all, and then gradually the face emerged from the chaos. Other artists will carefully plan and block out their drawing. I’m sure that everyone lies somewhere along that continuum between planning and what’s commonly known these days as pantsing.

But the one thing that the successful ones have in common is that they do it. They create art, or they write, or whatever it is they do, without worrying too much about how good it is, without fretting about whether they’ll be able to sell it, without feeling they have to.

The secret to art isn’t to work on one painting or drawing until it’s perfect; it’s to sketch and paint over and over again until the techniques are mastered and the lines flow easily. And the same for writing; it’s no good slaving for years over one novel, constantly rewriting the opening scene, or moving this section before that section and then back again, or searching for errors and clumsy phrasing; the secret is to keep going. Write a draft, leave it. Start another project. Leave that and return to the first, or start a third. But above all, don’t stop.

However you do something, the most important thing to do is actually do it, and not keep putting it off, or waiting until it’s perfect, or until you feel you’ve got the hang of it, or you’re ready.

As to the technique itself – you’ll work out your own, in time. And then maybe one day you’ll be telling others about it. Just remember to also tell them it’s okay to do it differently if it works for them!

And if you’re doing nanowrimo, why are you here reading this? You should be writing. Go get those words down. And after that 50k, there’s another 50k, whether they’re in the same project or a new one. And another, and another.

 

Reconstructing the past

I headed out to Whitstable this morning, to do further research on one of the workhouse families. I’ve decided that a short story based on the story of one of the children will form my contribution to an anthology of short stories my writing group is intending to publish, and I’m looking for material to flesh out the story and bring it to life.

I walked around the town, finding the house where they used to live, walking alongside the harbour, and identifying the school she would have gone to, and then went round the local museum and had a look at the local history section of the library.

As I walked back to the car, I passed a pub, which had a notice outside: “Back in 2015”. I’m guessing it refers to their live entertainment, but it felt strangely fitting, as for those two hours I’d been back in around 1880, and it felt strange to return to the present day.

As I drove home, I started musing about the difference between writing historical fiction and writing fantasy. In historical fiction, I’m trying to keep as true to the facts as I can, and weaving a story around those facts. I have a lot of flexibility, but within a very tight framework. It’s so easy to make a simple mistake with facts and instantly alienate a lot of readers. I’m also aware that I’m trying to fill in very large gaps – it’s one thing to imagine what she might have done on her way home from school, but I’m not even sure what she would have called her parents!

In one way, writing fantasy is easier. I’m creating my own world, and nobody can tell me that I’ve got my facts wrong. But in another, it’s the same thing. I want my world to be credible, and so I’m trying to think about how societies change and evolve. How do three very different races start spreading out and co-operating, only to have relationships break down and become hostile? How does a town function? How does a religion spread? How does intolerance show itself?

Admittedly, on some of those points I only have to read the papers, and the current world situation is definitely feeding itself into my novel. But that feeling of power, of deciding policy, is very real. And the feeling that it’s got to be close enough to the truth, or in this case at least A truth, is still very strong.

I thoroughly enjoyed my morning, and will be repeating the experience, with more time. In the meantime, I’ve got a new draft of my short story to get on with, and a novel or three to get finished.

 

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.

 

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.

 

X is for (e)Xpert

Posted as part of the A-Z challenge. With a slight cheat because I couldn’t come up with any meaningful comments about a xylophone.

Are you expert in anything? I’ve always wanted to be an expert, but somehow I seem to know a bit about a lot of things but not everything about any one thing.

But you know what? That’s not such a bad thing. Yes, it’s good to know a single subject in depth, but sometimes, it’s important to see the links between subjects; to be able to combine two or more subjects and find something new.

As a writer, I can call on all sorts of topics and meld them. As an editor, I have a good general awareness, whatever the subject matter. I’m not just stuck with one tool to use; I can select from a range of tools, and consider their relative merits.

So while I’d still really like to be a complete expert in one area, until one jumps out at me as the one I really, really need to become expert in, I’ll remain jack of all trades and master of none. Or maybe I’ll just call myself a general expert. Do you think that would work?