Friday, 16 December 2011

The Importance of Reading. In Writing.

No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.

When studying music at college, I was taught how to use one of those big mixing desks you find in recording studios. I learned how to make things sound better: how to make a kick drum sound sharper; how to pan sounds to give it a more spread-out, stereo effect; how to put reverberation on the vocals, to enhance their voice. Why do you think so many people love to sing in the shower? Good old acoustics.

Anyways, learning all those things changed the way I listened to music.

For every song I listened to, I couldn't help but notice the "gated" effect of the drums, or the duplication of vocals, amongst other production techniques. I couldn't figure out whether this new found, heightened awareness enhanced or detracted from my enjoyment of music. It doesn't matter now; that era of my life was so long ago, I hardly notice these things anymore. I've just about returned to the world of the average listener.

The reason I mention all this, is that it appears I'm going through the same thing with reading fiction.

I’ve been reading voraciously since I completed NaNoWriMo. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve spent more time reading than writing this last fortnight. Reading and analysing. I'm happy with this; I’m confident that reading will make me a better writer. I don’t understand the mentality of writers who say they don’t read books; do you?

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read a book the same way again. I’ve been picking up on all sorts of things: how other writers switch scenes (some do it in the same chapter, some use a chapter per POV), how other writers deal with certain situations without making it look too contrived, and how well they manage to build tension, to entice me as a reader.  It's a writing skill I'm very interested in honing!

I've always immensley enjoyed reading, but it's different now. Now, I find myself wondering how the author developed the story, and I have a new, deeper respect for writers because of it!
I have no intention of returning to the world of the regular reader. And I don’t feel it has hampered my enjoyment of fiction. Quite the reverse, in fact! 

This must be what it’s like for wine connoisseurs. They appreciate a decent wine once they’ve educated themselves a bit more.

That's all good and well, but we know a wine connoisseur can’t solely educate themselves by drinking lots of wine (although I’m sure they might try!), and in the same vein I know I can’t educate myself on writing, by only reading lots of books. I have to write, and plan and detail and organise. Then write some more.

My current draft feels more like a 50,028 word outline at this point. Yes, it’s got the backbone of my story in it, but I’m confident that I will rewrite every single word of it. I hope to make a start on that during the Xmas holidays (oh, sweet release).

In the meantime, I’ve been a major spreadsheet geek. I didn’t use any of my fancy NaNoWriMo spreadsheets during November, which taught me Lesson No. 1 in writing a novel: My lovingly prepared spreadsheets have no place in the first draft. I shall post about my wee spreadsheet in more detail next time, lest I waffle on just now.

I'd love to know your thoughts on the benefits of reading, as a writer. Do you have any specific (fiction) books that influence, or spur you on to write? I know there are millions of books on how to write fiction, but I'm starting to feel I'd get a better writing education by reading works of fiction I enjoy and figuring out what it is about those books that work for me!

On a separate note, I discovered last week that the practice of putting two spaces after a full stop was obsolete. I'm gutted! I keep having to correct my spacings after every sentence now. Why, goddamnit, why?



Friday, 2 December 2011

It's not over till I say so, alright?

"Just keep swimming... just keep swimming..."
Dory, Finding Nemo.

Ah Disney.  You may have ruined my expectations of men forever, but you sure know how to motivate me.

Having completed my 50k target for NaNoWriMo (50,028 words, to be exact), I initially decided I was going to take a break from writing; just for a week or two.  I deserved it, after pushing myself to the kind of writing extremes I'd never reached before.

Thankfully, I've realised I have no desire to take a break.  I can't stop thinking about my story!

And that's all it is as the moment.  A story.  No chapters; no deliberate thematic structre, no real craft.  In this project, I gather I'm about 20% complete.

What I want to do now, is go through it all, write more scenes, delete the guff (which is a good chunk of the beginning, from what I can see!), make the characters as strong at the beginning as they were at the end (I knew they'd come to life), do some more research, and give the story some... fluidity.

This is my first attempt at writing a novel.  I've toyed with novel software and was left scarred when it disappeared from my computer one day (my fault, but still...).  So, it's all on one 84-page document, looking messier than my hair in the mornings. 

It's also saved on some external hard drives and memory sticks of course (Ahm no daft, me!!).

Once I've done all the above, then I'll take a break.  Even if I'm itching to get on with it.  I'm going to look at it like a good casserole, or marinade.  Sometimes it's better to leave it alone, to develop (sorry, my food-geekiness is starting to show). 

Obviously I can't neglect it for too long, or it will go off, but it's essential for me to stay away for a while.  Just not yet though.

For now, I shall just keep swimming.


Thursday, 1 December 2011

It's Over

Sorry I haven't been blogging recently, I've been bleeding, sweating and crying into my first ever attempt at NaNoWriMo.

1st December marks The End.  So... did I win?

Damn right I did!

I'll update in more detail soon.  Congratulations to everyone who participated in NaNoWriMo.  Even if you didn't get to 50k, you're still amazeballs.


Thursday, 10 November 2011

Lest. They've Forgotten

When I read articles about Fifa trying to ban poppies (since corrected), or Poundland attempting to ban their staff from paying tribute, for fear of offending others, I can’t help but think to myself…

… Lest.  They’ve Forgotten.

It seems there are innumerable ways to honour (and dishonour) Remembrance Day.  Perhaps you have a political or religious agenda; perhaps you have a loved one in the Army.  The sight of Poppy may fill you with sheer pride.  Or contempt.

On 11/11/11 I, personally, will be remembering those who were sent to their deaths through conscription.  When that one minute silence starts, year after year, these are the things that go through my head:

I try to imagine how it would have felt to have been forced into battle, or to witness a loved one be involuntarily drafted into the Army.  Even the confines of my imagination produce a feeling of immense terror.

I try to imagine how it would have felt on 11th November, 1918, when the Armistice was signed, marking the end of World War 1.  I’m sure there would have been immense relief, though not without unspeakable trauma and loss.

I try to imagine how it would have felt to go through it all again only 21 years later.  What was going through the minds of those who’d survived WW1, knowing what lay ahead of them?

I try to imagine those who lost their lives taking a long, hard look at our world today. Would they feel it had all been worth it?  Even those who willingly entered the Army in a fit of Patriotism… what would they think?

As we face the onslaught of more displays of forgetfulness, I will be remembering the Armistice Agreement and what it represented.  Not through a sense of Patriotism, but through a sense of human compassion for ALL casualties of war, regardless of origin.


Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Story So Far...

Nearing the end of my first week of NaNoWriMo, I'm sitting at 9120 words.  By the end of the day, I should technically be at 10002 words.  I intend to spend a good chunk of my day writing, so I'm feeling comfortable with the pace I'm writing at.

I haven't been devoting too much time to writing this week, to be honest.  I thought I'd be rushing towards 10k on my first day, in the height of my delirious enthusiasm.  In reality, I got off to a somewhat awkward start.  I started writing scenes that were a) not part of my lovely outline and b) not in keeping with the natural order of how the story unfolded.  I naively assumed I'd start from Chapter 1 and go from there! *blush*

I've been guilty of doing that forbidden thing in NaNoWriMo: Going back and fixing bits.  Not full scale editing or anything, but there have been a few amendments here and there (ok I'll stop heh heh). I also found myself hitting that proverbial brick wall at times.  Not writers block, per se (I don't believe in that), but just... reaching a point where I'd lost concentration, gotten restless, and had to Step Away From The Laptop.  I know a change of scenery will always recharge my creative batteries.

I haven't used the spreadsheet I made a big fuss over before November 1st.  I've steered clear of social media, lest I get too sucked into the "race" aspect of it all.  Don't get me wrong, it looks like fun and I'm sure it would push me that bit further than my current mellow flow, but I'd run the risk of leaving myself too susceptible to procrastination via Twitter and blogs; I could spend hours on them!

I keep reminding myself that although NaNoWriMo is a global event, it's also a personal journey; one that I would like to complete!  In order to give myself the best chance at it, I need to refrain from distractions and focus on the story.  A story which, I'm delighted to say, I'm loving more and more with each word written.

So, I'll keep you updated on my progress, and wish everyone else doing NaNoWriMo the best of luck with your stories.  I can't wait to read about them all in December! :)


Friday, 28 October 2011

Keeping It Simple

Well, here it is.

My first novel outline.  EVER.

It's just under 6000 words, split into "developments".  Not scenes, chapters, plots, or POVs.  Just... development thingys.  This is Novel Writing: Catherine Stylee. 

I did try to do the "Chapter 1 = This Happens" structure, but it was messing with the flow of my story.  I'm taking a leaf out of Stephen King's "On Writing" book and telling the story first.  I'll work on the craft later.

Years of novel-structure research has been cast into the fire, in favour of Lazette Gifford's advice in her booklet: NaNo for the New and The Insane - A Guide to Surviving NaNoWriMo:

"An easy outline is to list 30 points in your story which can be written in about 2,000 word clumps.  You only need 1,667 words per day to reach 50,000.  If you have 30 things and write one each day, you'll reach your goal. It's that simple."

So, my outline describes what happens, from start to finish, in very brief detail.  The different colours establish a new event, whether that be a change in perspective or new dilemma (but not restricted to such).  There are 34 "developments" in my outline.  My shoddy maths tells me that a 50k word target will boil that down to 1470 words per development. 

I'm confident that I can waffle on for more than 1470 words for each, so I might just get to that self-imposed 70k mark!  Fingers crossed...

I don't know if it will work; It's quite a haphazard approach for an organisational geek like me.  I've got no choice but to go with it, now that NaNoWriMo is 3 days (and 13 hours) away. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeek!

How are you all getting on? x


Thursday, 20 October 2011

Oh The Humanity

*Warning: Contains Disturbing Content.  And Much Angst.*

Today, I was listening to a podcast “Genres in Children’s Literature - Dealing with Social Issues in Realistic Fiction” (by La Trobe University) and it was talking about defining limits for Children’s Fiction, in relation to their emotional maturity. 

The podcast was quite timely for me, due to the book I’m reading at the moment (Micka, by Frances Kay).  I’m starting to think there should be defining limits for adults too!

I’m so traumatised.  I’m only half way through the book and stumbled across a scene where my 10 year old protagonist is raped by his big brother.  There was no previous build up to allude to this happening or anything (although I doubt that would even have softened the blow) and I know I sound oversensitive here, but it’s bloody affected me. 

If I’d known it was going to contain such disturbing scenes, I wouldn’t have taken it out of the library.  I know all the supermarket shelves are stocked high with books centred round child abuse (why is it so popular?), but it’s just not my bag at all.  Am I destined to remain unsubscribed to any specific genre (all you Harry Potter fans know what I’m talking about)?

My love of books stem from the ability to be absorbed in someone else’s world.  I do like dark storylines, and even intend on writing one for my NaNoWriMo novel, but this crosses my personal threshold. :(

The podcast talks about “Vicarious Experience”, where you feel the real emotion from the story.  I certainly don't claim to be suffering the despair that would befall a victim of child abuse.  I’m certainly in a state of anguish, however, 'cos I know this sort of bile goes on in the real world and my wee brain can’t comprehend it.  I hate this pishy world sometimes. 
I'm not taking anything away from the writing talent, neither am I writing a book review.  Of course, I need to finish the book.  I’m reluctantly gripped, and will only be satisfied with the story as a whole, if it ends with the big brother being slowly castrated, dying a slow and painful death (although it still wouldn't be enough retribution).

What are your boundaries?  Anyone else think there should be some kind of forewarning on books with such disturbing content?

On a happier note (I think), here is a brief synopsis of my NaNoWriMo novel, titled The Caretaker. :)
When a car crash leaves Harry crippled and his mistress dead, his previously idyllic world collapses around him.

He seeks forgiveness from his devastated wife, Wendy, who agrees to give up her teaching job to take care of him. Can she bring herself to trust him again? Or does she succumb to the advances of the school's Caretaker; so desperate to be someone's first choice again?

The mistress haunts them both, in more ways than one.

Experience the turmoil of both sides of the coin, in this tragic tale about the fragility of trust.


Thursday, 13 October 2011

Just when I thought I was out...

... they pulled me back in.
Al Pacino (although I prefer Silvio Dante's version)

I've fallen victim to an illness, no doubt suffered by many NaNoWriMo participants.
I'm suffering from the disease of misplaced perfectionism.

NaNoWriMo isn't about creating a breathtakingly wonderful debut novel.  I need to remind myself of this.  The purpose of my Nano experience is to simply complete a novel.

It will be good to practise the craft; establish the basic fundamentals of storytelling (a beginning, middle and end; a satisfactory opening and resolution etc).  I want to write fabulous novels, in time, and consider this as part of my training.

To say I've been prone to over-thinking recently would be a gross understatement.  I've been beating up my poor little story, trying to force a better premise out of it.  I've been torturing my characters, demanding they yield to my creative demands and confess their juicy secrets.  Tony Soprano is rummaging around my head with a vengeance.

As much as I love Tony (who doesn't adore the big, cuddly, cold-blooded killer?), he's not what I need right now.  I need Paulo Coelho.  I need his serene presence in my psyche, telling me it's going to be alright and helping me along my path to wonderment.  

I'm not religious.  Your God is My Paulo, though.  If Paulo were rummaging around my head, he'd tell me "when you find your path, you must not be afraid.  You need to have sufficient courage to make mistakes".

He'd pat me on the shoulder and say "whenever you want to achieve something, keep your eyes open, concentrate and make sure you know exactly what it is you want.  No one can hit their target with their eyes closed".

And finally, he'd reassure me "there is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure".

So, aside from re-reading The Alchemist, I will spend the weekend working on my plot/outline with fresh eyes and less pressure.

What would Tony say to that?

"Why don't you get the f**k out of here before I shove your quotation book up your fat f*****g a**."


How are you all getting on with your NaNoWriMo's, people?


Sunday, 9 October 2011

Have I missed something?

Browsing the NaNoWriMo forums (it's not procrastinating, honest), I discovered the thread where everyone describes what they're planning to write about this year.  Excited, I trawled through the many entries, anticipating that harsh feeling of "Oh no!  Theirs sound amazing compared to mines".  All the posts sounded so confident; raring to go.  My inevitable unease ensued.

It's not self-torture.  It keeps me sharp.  It forces me to improve my own description of my story.  A story which, as of yet, has failed to maintain its direction.  That sounds pessimistic, but it's genuinely not.  It's only because some of my characters have decided to become infinitely more interesting than my original main character.  Surely not a bad thing, but requires a lot of restructuring.  I have to laugh at my earlier fears of starting too early.  I should have started my planning for this Novel months ago.

I'm glad I figured all this out now, instead of two weeks into November, I tell ye.

I noticed the plethora of fantasy/other world-esque stories being described.  At the time of browsing, that genre appeared to take up about 90% of the posts.  I've never really ventured that side of fiction before and, seeing how immensley popular it is, can't help but feel I'm missing something.  What I'm about to tell you next will shock and horrify you...

... I've never read a Harry Potter book.  Or The Lord of the Rings.

Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike the idea of reading them.  They scare me, if I'm honest with you.  I see how obsessed people get with them, and I don't want to be consumed that way.

I've read enough articles and interviews with J.K. Rowling to understand that she is an exceptional writer.  And I like reading the work of exceptional writers.  I'd quite fancy being an exceptional writer myself one day, as I'm sure every writer does.  I can't imagine anyone with a passion for their work, thinking "I'd quite like to be a decidedly average writer one day."

Maybe if I'd read the books, I'd be amongst the crowd of fantasy writers.  Alas, my book will concern unexceptional human beings and the banalities of life. 

Life.  Hideously unfair life.  Beautiful, joyful life.  At times tragic beyond comprehension.  Other times euphoric and filled with a love powerful enough to offer solace against the frequent anguish and misery.

I'm quite alright with writing about that.  Real-life fiction.  How paradoxical.  I know I'm not alone though.  I just looked it up and it appears to be an established genre.

I've made a conscious decision to read the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Ring books, one day.  Not until I've finished this book, though, lest the fantasy suck me into its addictive grip and spurt me back out as a fantasy writer forevermore. 

In the meantime, I shall gleam the planning wisdom from J.K. Rowling and go with that.  I refer to the alleged Plot Spreadsheet I found for "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix". 

Anyone who knows how geeky I am will understand how breathless with excitement this diagram made me.  I printed it out in A3 and currently have it spread out on my dining room table. 

I'm sure if I'd read the book, I'd have a much better idea of how everything slots in together.  But thats the thing.  I don't need to have read the book to see where the arcs and subplots come into it.  I believe the art of planning a book transcends genre; it's universal.

From this, I want to understand how much activity there is in a book and set myself a precedent.  Not unlike the precedent I set myself when browsing the forums.  Some may scoff at this, and say "are you seriously trying to compare your efforts to that of J.K. Rowling?"

Why the hell not? 

So that will be my plans for this dreary Sunday.  How are you all getting on, NaNo-ers? 


Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Who are you and what are you doing in my head?

This is what my novel is going to look like, I think.

The first draft is going to be crammed full of stereotypical nonsense.  My antagonist is going to be over-the-top evil; my protagonist is going to have a halo on her delicate, beautiful skull.  The "nice guy" is going to be meek to the point of nausea and all characters are at risk of whiplash from the hair tossing and theatrical gestures.

It's alright, though.  I accept it, for now.  I welcome it, to be honest.

My first draft has yet to begin (26 days to go eeeek!), and I'm already looking forward to the second draft.  That will be the point when I truly understand my characters.

A lot of writers I've come across like to know everything about their characters before they start, up to (and including) what their gran had for dinner last week.  And if that works for them, I'm envious.  I'm still trying to figure out what works for me, though I have a good idea what doesn't.

When I try to come up with proper names for my characters, or a book title, I feel utterly indifferent.  It's like a baby, I suppose.  I need to see what it looks like in the flesh before I can name it. 

For the time being, I have Harry the Husband, Wendy the Wife; I even have Rebecca the Replacement (teacher) and Jason the Janitor.  Highly original, I know.

What I'm more concerned with, right now, is how they treat themselves and others.  Their demeanour and attitudes.  How they deal with the situations I thrust upon them.  I've always believed that it's what people do (and don't do) that determine who they are.  For instance, someone might donate to charity every month and help old people cross the road, but they might also cheat on their partner or keep the contents of a lost purse. 

Labels don't define human beings.  We are complex creatures and I look forward to making my characters wonderfully intricate in my 2nd draft.  I anticipate the agony with relish.

In the meantime, my first draft will be a caricature of their life views.  Their opinions.  Their morals and beliefs.  Their place in society and how they measure themselves up against others.  This, to me, will direct their actions in the story, more than figuring out their pet's name or bra size.

Please don't misunderstand me.  I'm not detracting from anyone who creates or uses character profile sheets; not at all.  I will be using them myself, when I get on to the second draft.  Alan Ayckbourn can sum it up better than me, in the Open University podcast for creative writing.  He's talking about plays specifically, but it definitely strikes a chord with me:

"The first draft is very much an acquaintanceship with the characters, and ….often their dialogue, their speech patterns develop during that first draft, they don’t start that way."

I just adore his voice.  It's so delightfully theatrical!

I'm going to spend the rest of the evening reading.  I feel literally undernourished, and crave that blissful escapism that I so wish to create myself.

Any NaNo-ers care to share their tips with a newbie? How are your plans coming along?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

If you aren't in over your head...

... how do you know how tall you are?
T.S. Eliot

I can't believe it's October.  This is what happens when you wish your life away, every Monday morning at the office.  I long for the day I don't live for the weekend.

I've been browsing the NaNoWriMo forums, to see if anyone else has been preparing their novel to the extent I have.  I felt I wasn't "playing the game" somehow, having already created my outline and characters.

How wrong I was.  It seems I am a turtle amongst the hares. 

Feeling slightly naive, I've abolished my preconception (that all participants started from scratch on November 1st), and intend to step up a gear in my planning.  

I have 29 full days left to prepare as much research and structure as I can, and will thoroughly enjoy doing so. 

There's more to it, though. 

I have a full time job and will spend October getting ahead of my workload; simply to make my life as stress-free as possible in November.  Fortunately, I manage my own workload in the office and, as wistful as I am about my writing ambition, I'm practical enough not to let it affect the quality of my work elsewhere.  Oh dear, it seems I have finally grown up...

Nevertheless, I'm very excited about it all.  It'll be a shock to the system, enforcing these daily writing deadlines upon myself, but I have no doubt I'm up to the challenge.

This has been a lazy weekend for me.  It'll be my last one until December, when I'm sure to be mentally frazzled and in need of some R&R!

In the meantime I shall be in my element, organising and planning away.  I may limit those forum visits, so I don't feel bad about not being as far ahead as the other participants of NaNoWriMo. 

Lets not forget who won the race between the turtle and the hare...


Friday, 30 September 2011

My NaNoWriMo Journey

NaNoWriMo 2011 will be my first attempt at writing a full length novel.  For anyone not familiar, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November each year.  Find out more about it here.

The thing is, NaNoWriMo only has a 50,000 word target.  My extensive research suggests the average book is between 90,000 and 120,000 words, so here is my own little plan:

  • Aim for 70,000 words for my first draft
  • Take a few weeks off, and prepare for Xmas break. 
  • 2 tear-inducingly blissful weeks off work, to be spent working on 2nd draft. 

I hope to bulk up to 90k + words during this time.  Once I've got that out of the way, I'll look into critiquing and getting a few objective readers arranged, but first things first... the planning stage!

I have come up with a fantastic plot (if I do say so myself), and 5 main characters.  There are also several other characters who'll have a small (but vital) part to the story and will need beefing up a bit.  I've nearly figured out how to intertwine everything smoothly, whilst retaining strong subplots.  So far so good. 

The main theme of my novel will be trust.  I didn't intend it to be that way, which I'm sure would raise the eyebrow of many a psychiatrist.  It's just such a fragile thing, trust, isn't it?  It's laden with risk. 

I am a serious spreadsheet geek.  Here is the little outline spreadsheet I started:

It's important for me to keep as organised as humanly possible.  It's how I work.  I need to establish routine and commit to it fully.  If I get complacent, I let things slip.  If I let things slip, it gets harder to return to.  The harder it is to return to, the more likely I will abandon it. 

Blogging about my NaNoWriMo journey here will help me stick to it.  I'm not good with failure and don't fancy the prospect of posting any paltry excuses about how I couldn't finish it. 

Looking for inspiration, I came across this amazing link, to a spreadsheet that kicks my little spreadsheet's arse.

I got ridiculously excited about it.  It's from 2010, but I shall amend the details for 2011.  Not sure if I'll use every page of it, but will let you know!

Anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year?  Any tips or advice much appreciated!

Have a lovely weekend, everyone.


Saturday, 24 September 2011

In the beginning...

I've finally taken the step to documenting my writing journey; leaping from the pages of my journal to the blogisphere.  I'm no stranger to blogging, but this is much more personal, therefore much more terrifying. 

I'm normally a quiet, reserved person (like many writers; it's in our nature).  I believe, however, this blog will be immensely gratifying for nostalgic purposes; meaning I fully intend to look back fondly on this first post when I'm a filthy rich, bestselling author; a tear of sentimentality running down my cheek.  When I'm Queen Catherine...

I jest.  I'm fully aware of the difficulties that befall me as an aspiring author, and I make no illusions of bestselling grandeur.  My purpose, nay, my vocation, is to write well.  I consider myself very much a beginner (despite a lifelong writing ambition), and look forward to the day I look back on this first post, thinking "Sweet Mother of Lucifer, I knew nothing back then!".  That would suggest growth, and that's what I want more than anything right now.

I look forward to sharing more as I go along.  I shall bid you adieu for now, as I'm off to luncheon with the twinny at the beautiful Lomond Shores.

Speak soon. x