Thursday, 29 April 2010

I've Done It Now

I had a chat with my Paramour about my mathematical incompetence (remember?). He kindly helped me work out that one of the things I'd like to achieve is a better understanding of my company accounts. (Yes, it is perfectly possible to run a successful business while being numerically inept - especially if you have a handy Paramour to help you with that side of things, as mine does for me.) Then he pointed out that learning about maths isn't terribly helpful in getting your head around company accounts; for that, it would make more sense to learn about accounting and book-keeping. To which I am equally allergic.

Finding myself with a spare few minutes this afternoon, I did some more investigation of OU courses. Lo and behold, they offer an introduction to book-keeping and accounting as well as their introduction to maths. What's more, the accounting course starts next week, and the maths course starts a month later. So guess who's just signed up for TWO courses for the numerically challenged?


Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Busy Busy Busy

This week is so full that I have no time to write. (Yes, I could squeeze in half an hour here and there, but am not prepared to put myself under that much pressure when work is so demanding.) But I keep having ideas. At the gym... in the bath... driving between assignments... almost any time I'm not actively thinking about other things.

Write your ideas down, wise people will say. But you know what? I never actually do that. I don't own a paper notebook. I tried writing ideas down for a while, way back, because all the proper writers seemed to do it. But it doesn't work for me. Last week's idea seems trite, while last month's idea doesn't even make sense any more. Even a paragraph mapping out a short story will seem unappetising if I return to it after a few days - like going to the kitchen, hungry for a sandwich, and finding only mouldy bread.

Perhaps this is partly why I'm not a great planner. Having said that, some ideas stick in my mind over months, even years, until I want to use them. I don't worry about non-stick ideas because I can usually generate new ones. Then again, maybe I re-generate old ones that just feel like new ones, who knows? Who cares!

Do you write down your ideas and use them later, or trust your creativity in the moment, or a bit of both?

Friday, 23 April 2010

Walking The Writer's Tightrope

I read somewhere this week (I'm sorry I can't remember where - if anybody knows, please leave a comment and I'll add a credit) that writers have to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in their heads at all times. These are, to the best of my remembering:

1. I am a good writer, good enough that it's worth me working hard to write and to submit my writing for publication.
2. I am a bad writer, I need to be working hard to improve my writing and my submissions for publication.

Notice the phrase that's the same in both ideas? Yep - it's "working hard."

This resonated with me. I need to believe I'm good at writing to give me the confidence to keep writing and sending out story and book submissions in the teeth of regular rejections. I also need to believe I'm bad at writing, so I don't think my first drafts consist of deathless prose and therefore develop hideous arrogance which would mean I NEVER get an agent - and so that I keep working to improve my skills and abilities. Maintaining both beliefs feels a bit like walking a tightrope: I wobble between one and the other.

Working hard at writing involves further balancing acts. It's not as much of a struggle for me to prioritise writing as it is for many people. I don't have children, or adult dependents; I work for myself, so I can take time to write during office hours if I'm not too busy with jobs for clients; I don't have to work full time, so sometimes I can award myself whole writing days or weeks. I'm good at time management, organisation, motivation. Yet still, sometimes, it's difficult.

I think this is partly because I'm impatient. Eight thousand words into my first draft (in ten days! Lookee lookee at the word counter!!) and I can't wait to be finished. Yet I know it's no good rushing (and if I ever forget this, Debi's voice kindly appears in my head to remind me). But I had such a lovely plan. I was going to write 1000 words per day, up to and including today, which would give me 10,000 words. Then this weekend, when I have no work or social commitments, I was going to write 2500 words each day, to make up for next week when I won't have time to write anything. That would give me 15,000 words to leave alone for a week and then review.

So why is the word counter still at 8000 words? Because yesterday I had an email outage which required several hours of extra work to deal with, and there was no slack in the system. And I was completely knackered. And today has been very full-on, so I haven't written any words today either. Instead, I revised my plan to 1000 words a day over the weekend, and ending up a week behind schedule on the WIP, with only 10,000 words to review after a week.

It really doesn't matter. Looked at objectively, the world would lose nothing if I stopped writing altogether. In fact, it might gain: I'd have more time for my family and friends (although I'd be so crabby that they probably wouldn't be very appreciative), for myself, for my paid work and for my voluntary work. If being a week behind my (self-imposed) schedule leaves me less knackered and better able to face the Week From Hell next week, that will be a good thing. After this weekend, I won't be back to my WIP until Monday 3rd May at the earliest, as I have to work straight through next weekend. And I worked straight through last weekend. So this weekend I think I need a break more than I need the satisfaction of an enormous word count.

This again necessitates holding two more completely contradictory ideas in my head:

1. I must work hard to finish my WIP in a timely manner.
2. It doesn't matter how long I take to write my WIP.

I often find it hard to get the balance right between these two ideas. I'm sure impatience is partly to blame here, too. I spent so many years writing my last book, I can't bear to think it'll be that many again for this one - even though I know it might. Judging from the experiences of friends, if I ever get published, I'll need to write a book a year, so it would be useful to get the hang of writing more quickly. But here's another writerly paradox:

1. I must set myself deadlines and stick to them
2. I must be flexible about my deadlines when the need arises

Aarrgghh!!!!! All of these are doing my head in!

How do you walk the writer's tightrope?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Feeling Lucky

My retired parents take several holidays a year. They're on holiday right now - in Scotland, where they went by car.

A couple of months ago, my Paramour and I decided to try to arrange our own holiday. 'What would your choice be?' I asked. 'Greece, end of April or beginning of May,' he said. We consulted our diaries, couldn't find a mutually acceptable week till June, had an argument about whose fault that was (his, obviously), sulked for a bit, and eventually decided on France at the end of June, by car.

My brother-in-law was due to fly into the UK from his home in Canada today, to spend a week with the family before attending a work-related conference over here the following week. Of course we're sorry not to see him, but he's much better off stuck at home than stuck abroad or in transit as so many other unfortunate people are.

We are so, so lucky.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Taking A Plunge

Academically, I've always been a high achiever at the arts and humanities end of the curriculum, and hopeless at maths and science. I enjoyed maths and science till I went to senior school. I dropped all three science subjects when it was time to choose my O levels, but I had to do maths. I was in the O level class with a teacher who was undoubtedly a very nice woman, and probably a fine mathematician, but not a good teacher. If I asked for help with something I didn't understand, she would explain it exactly the same way as she'd explained it the first time, only louder. The volume wasn't the problem, so this didn't help.

Once when she was off sick, the CSE teacher took our class. He was great! If I didn't get something, he explained it as many different ways as it took for me to grasp the concept! I asked if I could move to the CSE class. No, they said, you're a high achiever, you're capable of O level. Not with this teacher, I muttered, and anyway, grade 1 CSE is supposedly equivalent to an O level so what's the difference? That didn't get me anywhere.

I developed a fear of maths, and a conviction that I couldn't do much beyond basic arithmetic. So I failed maths O level. Several times. The last time I sat the exam, I used the time to catch up on my letter-writing. I told myself I didn't care: I knew enough to work out my change, read a timetable, divide a restaurant bill. That was all I needed.

Fast forward 29 years and you find me beginning to feel slightly interested in science. I had a look at OU introductory science courses, but they all say you need basic maths. Eek. Gulp. The OU also offers a basic maths course. I had a look, in some trepidation, and found that the student reviews were helpful. 'Did you feel stupid in maths classes at school?' Yup. 'This course doesn't make you feel like that.' Really? 'The tutor was so helpful.' Hmmm. 'The course makes maths relevant to everyday life.' Ooh!

So I think I'm going to sign up. It's scary, though.

My father was always afraid to learn to swim. (Stay with me, this is relevant.) He didn't like to go in water if it was more than knee deep. I have an abiding memory of childhood holidays where he would sit in the sea up to his chest, put on my swimming mask and crane his face forward into the water to look at the fish. After he retired, he decided to face his fear, and signed up for a course at the local swimming pool. He was in there with a load of kids, holding on to a polystyrene float and kicking his legs behind him. The day he swam a width unaided, he rang to tell me of his achievement. I was, and am, hugely proud of him.

My brain tells me I should be equally proud of myself for facing my fear of maths. But I don't feel proud, I feel silly and nervous and frightened of failure. Which is daft! What's the worst thing that can happen? Nobody will tell me off, or dock my salary, or stop being my friend, or sack me from my job.

And still, and still.

People, eh? What Are We Like?!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Guess What I Did Today

Another writing day today. Three short stories edited and subbed, then a trip to the gym, and then it was time to think about my new WIP.

I did some more work with the Snowflake Method on Monday. I'd done the first three steps fairly diligently, so I started on step 4, but found myself unable to follow the instructions. I wanted to write more than a paragraph per sentence. Much more. So I did, and found that within a couple of hours I'd sketched out the first half, maybe two-thirds of the book.

Also on Monday, I found myself in a large and seductive branch of Waterstones. I gravitated, as always, to the creative writing section. Did you know I'm a 'how to' writing book addict? I must have read dozens. Thing is, I learn something from each book. I re-read the best ones, too, and learn something new every time. I find them immensely useful if I feel stuck, a few pages of a good one usually gets me going again in no time.

Monday wasn't too bad; I only bought two. One was 'No Plot? No Problem!' by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. I've never done NaNo, but I've followed the progress of those who do, and always find it fascinating. Chris Baty's book is excellent. He argues eloquently in favour of planning - but against overplanning, which he says can block writers. This was really useful for me.

The other book I bought was 'How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy' by one of my heroes of the genre, Orson Scott Card. I'm halfway through this and it's inspiring.

Some of your answers to the questions in my previous post were also very helpful. Beleaguered Squirrel said 'My current thinking is that it's best to plan a broad outline but avoid getting too mired in detail, which then gives you room to breathe and be inventive within secure boundaries.' SueG, who has tried the Snowflake method, said 'I thought it was helpful, but I had to be very flexible with it. I had to use some bits of the process and not others, I had to be willing to make changes while I was going, etc. And that worked fine.' And Cathy said 'I guess it's a case of playing around to see what works best for you.'

So do you know what I did today? I wrote the first 1000 words of my new WIP! Word meter over on the right, thanks to the lovely Leigh. I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. Such a feeling of satisfaction - not better than chocolate, or sex, or selling a story, but a kind of calm excited completeness that is different from anything else. I hope I can sustain that feeling for a while, although previous experience leads me to suspect that at some point I'll be back here wailing that my story doesn't make sense, the characters are misbehaving, writing books is too hard, and so on. But for now - I'm happy.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Writing And Planning

Today is a lovely, lovely writing day. Not an enormously productive one but nevertheless very enjoyable. I began by finishing the first draft of a short story for my writers' group to look at this week. Then our overnight guests got up, so I stopped writing and joined them in a leisurely sociable breakfast. After they left I went back to bed, re-read a short book from cover to cover (my very favourite way to read), and then had a nap. I should have been born in a siesta country, warm weather and afternoon naps suit my constitution perfectly.

Since then I've been tinkering with my WIP. This time, I'm planning, and I've started using the Snowflake Method which was brought to my attention by the estimable Spiral Skies. Up to now I've always been pretty much a seat-of-the-pants writer, rarely planning more than a few scenes ahead. I've always thought it would probably be more efficient to plan a whole book in advance, but I couldn't, before; I didn't know enough about plotting, story structure, narrative arcs etc, and I had to work it out by writing and rewriting. I read lots of how-to books, and learned about the three-act structure; the need for each character to have their own narrative arc; the differences and relationship between plot and character; and so on. But I only seemed able to relate the theory to my own work in retrospect. Now I think I can do it in advance, because I understand it well enough.

Of course, I may be wrong about this, but if I am, as usual, I'll find out by giving it a try. I don't think there's anything wrong with seat-of-the-pants writing, as such, and I know some very experienced writers who I admire enormously use this method. Alan Garner, for example. But I prefer to manage many things in my life through organisation and planning, so I suspect I might enjoy writing even more if I could plan a story first, really thoroughly. My own theory is that I could then write a good first draft without worrying or wondering what's going to happen next and how it will all end. Will it work? Who knows? I'll keep you posted!

But in the meantime, I have a question for you. Are you a planner or a seat-of-the-pants writer? Why? (OK, that's two questions. So sue me!)

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

About Stories

Sometimes us writers forget that stories aren't all made from writing. For example, we had a family staying with us for Easter, two parents and their two young daughters. The girls love written stories, read avidly, and the older one enjoys writing stories of her own. They also enjoy telling stories, and told me many stories of school trips, sleepovers with friends, and amusing family incidents. These last were added to when the family went off together to the local water park one afternoon, while my Paramour and I stayed at home to do domestic jobs. When they came back, I asked if they'd had a good time. The girls were jumping up and down, fizzing with a new story to tell, their words falling over each other:

'We went on the big big flume...'
'And I zoomed down first...'
'And then Mummy went next...'
'And afterwards she took ages to get up...'
'I was watching her and wondering why she was taking so long...'
'And then we saw why, it was because...'

Cue for much hilarity all round. This story was told and re-told all weekend (much to poor Mummy's embarrassment), and will no doubt become part of that family's oral story archive.

Some events are reliable story-makers: social rituals such as weddings and funerals; individual rites of passage; random acts of kindness. Friendships are often based on shared stories. I have a small group of newish writer friends who are bonding around stories involving things like catching the wrong train and putting up a tent indoors - trivialities that wouldn't mean much to others, but which create mirth and solidarity for us.

Looked at one way, people's lives are made of stories, and people turn into stories when they die. However, something I have learned in my writing career is that, while there is of course some overlap between life's stories and written stories, they are often more different than they are similar. I remember, as a novice writer, wailing 'But life isn't really like that,' when helpful tutors gently tried to explain the demands of narrative. I've got a much better handle, now, on how to create a written story that will work for a reader. I know that simply writing stories is not enough; I have to design an experience, create a world.

Which is fine. But I reserve the right to hear, tell, and make stories in my life as well as in my computer. In fact, I think it's essential, for writers as for everyone else.