Monthly Archives: April 2012

Where Has My Week Gone?

Gah, where did my week go?!  Sorry guys, I can only apologise!  Life has been so hectic that I ended up losing last week entirely.  Had a fantastic and very educational time in London (that sounds dubious, but I actually mean the Natural History Museum) but nonetheless I’m so lazy and suburban that I actually somehow needed to prepare emotionally for it all week.  Add to that a change of office, studying again and producing a lesson plan and somehow my week just evaporated.

However, I have a few interesting ideas for posts, accomplished some universe and plot development and am back in a place where I can start writing narrative, so it should be plain sailing again from here.  I shall make it so.

Anyway, in the absence of a proper thought-out topic and tangible progress, let me take this opportunity to at least write about a few new intentions.

Firstly, I shall read a Patricia Cornwell novel called Post Mortem – no spoilers!  Basically my story is going to involve mystery and crime, and so I need to become more familiar with the structure and tone.  Where better to start than here?

Secondly, I shall get back to the industrial roots of my home county, the West Midlands.  I’ve always been fascinated by factories and the heritage of this part of the UK, and since my book may include some industrial settings I’d like to look around the West Midlands for some inspiration.

Finally – and most importantly for you, lovely reader – I shall now blog on Fridays.  Early week has gotten a bit busy, so, to avoid being any more inconsistent, I’ll publish a few days later when I’ve got less going on.

Unfortunately not a very interesting post.  More a quick flag-up that I am in fact still alive.  But next Friday, I will… somehow… wow you.  Promise.  So until then, friends!

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Let’s Look At The Map Before We End Up In Mexico

Sorry, guys!  I’m horrendously late with this update, but last week became somewhat consumed by my need to unearth old Japanese work – and, more dauntingly, my dormant Japanese language skills – so I can start a prospective tutoring job.  Exciting, but tough!  The human brain is amazing at times, though.  It’s all coming back so fast just looking at my notes and textbooks.  It’ll take work, but it’s all about getting back to a place where I can pluck vocabulary out of the air rather than out of… anywhere else.

Anyway, yes, the book!  I sat down for the first time in ages to begin writing without interruption last week.  I began Chapter Five.  I persisted with Chapter Five.  I finished half of Chapter Five in only a couple of days.  And then I realised I had no idea what I was doing.

I now have it on good authority from a fellow writer that around Chapter Five is the place where a crisis typically sets in.  It’s because you are approaching the middle of the book, that uncomfortable sandwich filling between your good start and your suspenseful and thoroughly worth-it ending, where you have to work out what the heck your characters are going to see and do for the next ten chapters to get to the grand finale.

Obviously, there’s very little point in just blathering on without any direction, so this has led to a period of writing downtime as I focus on getting my story straight.  I have come up with several ways to get the creative ideas flowing and have been putting them into action this past week.

  1. I have taken out my ten-sided dice and created a system for randomly creating characters via dice roll.  This has worked spectacularly well, finally getting me to move away from my comfort zone and really start thinking about how to fit them into my work.  Also unsettling is that two of the characters I had already conjured up beforehand actually came out through the dice rolls.  They even had the same first initials.  Creepy.
  2. To get my characters off the page I used my (severely limited) artistic skills to draw them all out alongside one another, police line-up style.  The scale went a bit wrong – the 4’10” character appears to come to the 6’5” character’s knees – but I’m still pretty proud of it.  It’s helped me to widen the scope of my story, and actually resulted in a major epiphany for the plot.
  3. I took out a piece of pink card, cut it into little rectangles and then began writing all the plot points and potential plot points I could for the story.  Then I put them in chronological order and worked out where the gaps were in my plot.  Now I can consider how to fill those gaps, and rearrange the events in the story for the best pacing.

Here's one I made earlier. Behold the plot cards!

These techniques have been extremely helpful for my writing process and I recommend them to anyone.  I think the worst place to be in the entire world when you need to force your creativity is in front of an LCD screen, staring at an open Microsoft Word document.  I have more worthy nemeses to make than that smug little flashing cursor.


Is Writer’s Block Just Martyrdom?

I am sure some people have approached this post with a flicker of outrage and defensiveness that anyone could even deign to suggest such a thing.  But How To Write Damn Good Fiction by James N. Frey dares to barrel into this most sensitive of subjects for most writers.

Frey writes an appropriately “Damn Good” guide to writing fiction, and one from which I have taken much over the years.  It goes over the finer points of plot development and writing techniques with a refreshing level of conviction, and does so assuming that the aspiring author already has the chops to write to a respectable level in the first instance.  It’s also witty and the author’s voice is, in my opinion, unusually distinctive and powerful.

However, some may take his assertions about writer’s block with not a small amount of offence. Frey boldly states that, “Writer’s block… comes from a subconscious wish to be a martyr.”

When I first read this, I myself was rather wounded at the accusation.  I could think of many a time where I had legitimately felt completely uninspired to write and hated every word I had forced onto the page; times where the back-space button was used almost as much as every letter on the keyboard combined.  Nonetheless, since writing was a private pursuit, I never shared my feelings of frustration with anyone.  Under those circumstances, how could he possibly suggest that such a decision had anything to do with seeking sympathy?

When I completed his novel, however, I did begin to understand a little more where he was coming from.  In fact, his book was the inspiration for a previous post: to write professionally, one must treat writing as a profession.  You have to work at it every day and meet targets, just as you would any other job.

If you have an off-day at work, you may not be spectacularly productive, but you will achieve something nonetheless.  In fact, even on good days at work, most of us are not ecstatically happy to be doing our jobs.  We accept that it is a living and either don’t use our jobs to define ourselves or justify them as a stepping stone to something bigger.

Writing can be no exception to the rule of working.  In the same way that others do not expect to be enthralled by their daily work tasks, the lightning bolt of ecstatically powerful inspiration, though nice, cannot be relied upon to constitute the bulk of writing output all the time.  “Genius,” Thomas Edison once asserted, “is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

Likewise, as Frey asserts, one must not bellyache over one’s drafts for fear of imperfection if they truly ever want to produce.  This was always a problem for me.  I am notoriously indecisive and a perfectionist.  I continually worried that my penmanship wouldn’t match the image in my head, and simultaneously feared the images in my head were not clear enough for me to write about.  A complete Catch-22.  Ultimately, however, I overcame this to realise the most important thing was to produce something.  Otherwise there would be no novel at all.

I do not agree with Frey that writer’s block is a product of subconscious martyrdom, but do see that I have used it as an excuse to avoid writing, instead declaring my novel-creating time better spent on world construction and research periods, downtime and plot re-evaluation.  It has been employed as an excuse.  When it isn’t, it is, in my opinion, not an obstruction to one’s ability to write, but an obstruction to one’s own belief that one can write.  To an extent, I also believe the word, “Inspired,” sets the bar very high as a consistent writing experience.  Some people begin their writing lives unfulfilled because they are convinced they should only write on an inspiration rush, rather than barrelling through when they aren’t.

Personally, I think the characterisations of writer’s block as a tangible thing, as an enemy or an affliction, contributes to a state of learned helplessness amongst writers – as does identifying inspiration as an antidote or dynamo.  Moreover, since I have refused to even think these terms whilst writing, I have found it increasingly easy to soldier on and be productive.  Perhaps if instead we could think in terms of easier days and harder days – remove “writer’s block” from our vocabulary altogether – we would all be a little less discouraged.

So, I turn the question on you, the lovely reader.  What is your opinion on writer’s block?


Bubble Wrap is for Breakables. Your Child Is Not A Breakable.

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Why a Farthing Wood image? Oh, don't worry. I'll get to it.

Hi, guys!  Sorry for the late update, but work was hectic yesterday and, considering last week was so busy too, I really needed some me-time to lie on the sofa looking in the vague direction of the TV.

To spur me on, though, I’d like to announce a collection of tiny milestones!  I can now celebrate my fifth post, tenth like and twentieth Twitter following.  So, thanks a lot to everybody who has offered support in these early stages.  I really appreciate it.

As for progress?  Ha, progress!  I feel like I went to bed last Wednesday night and woke up this morning to find a load of ugly shaded out squares all over my pretty grid.

Nonetheless, other things were accomplished.  Aside from seeing friends and going to a gig, I also finished watching the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time and finished the first volume of The Hunger Games.

Overall thoughts on The Hunger Games?  It was a decent book for teenagers, and it certainly had enough suspense to keep me reading.  However, certain things did disappoint me a little and I can’t help but feel compelled to bring up one of my (strictly non-spoiler) thoughts here.

Here’s my issue.  Considering its subject matter, The Hunger Games almost completely evaded mentioning gore at all.  People did get injured, at least, and badly at times, but I still felt removed from the action.  Even the deaths of the tributes seemed to receive only brief and cursory mentions.  When people express disappointment that its rating has been reduced to a 12A I am personally surprised it bordered on a 15 for anything other than its overall theme.

At the risk of sounding old, my question is this: doesn’t the media coddle young people a little too much nowadays?  The Hunger Games is a teen or young adult book, isn’t it?  When I was that age, less than ten years ago, I read Point Horror books, and adult novels about grisly murders, hostages and stalkers.  I don’t remember an awful lot about them now, and they didn’t traumatise me at the time.

It was the same when I was a kid.  I watched some pretty grim stuff, all of which was aimed at families and aired on TV with few qualms from broadcasters: the film, Watership Down, for starters.

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No, I wasn't kidding. Here is a close-up. Just in case the kids didn't quite catch it the first time.

The Animals of Farthing Wood was also a popular show, about a group of woodland creatures displaced from their habitat by developers and trying to find a new home together.  Many characters were killed off over its run of three series, and in a variety of different ways.  Pheasants were shot and eaten by farmers.  Toads almost died of dehydration.  Hedgehogs were run over.  Rabbits were strangled with snares.  The baby field mice were snatched by a shrike and impaled on thorns.  Nonetheless, I know many people who watched and enjoyed it as children at the time.

Then there were all the Disneys and Don Bluth movies, none of which were known to pull punches.  An example I’d like to draw here is The Lion King, hailed as a Disney classic and favoured by many of my generation.  That movie dealt with powerful emotions like guilt and grief and facing up to a terrible mistake.  Indeed, it managed such a dramatic death scene it eclipsed even Bambi’s efforts.

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One of the baby rabbits, strangled by a snare. Yes, this show got the BBC seal of approval. Back in the good old days.

Yet what is ironic to me is that, in this day and age, I highly doubt something as critically acclaimed – and as recent – as The Lion King would even be made.  Producers would fear a backlash even though children of this generation, from my understanding, loved the film upon its rerelease in 3D.

Frankly, I find it worrying that so many movies and TV shows are happy to make villains for kids who aren’t scary, and protagonists without any real problems.  Ultimately, entertainment is a child’s first shot at empathy.  If characters have few real emotional challenges, where will this skill be practised or developed?  Who and what will be the objects of their fear if not Darth Vader, Cruella De Vil or Ursula from The Little Mermaid?  Death is also largely avoided, yet where would you rather your child learned about grief first: from The Lion King or from personal experience?

Family entertainment no longer tries to take on more mature themes.  It’s all just slapstick, one-liners and celebrity cameos.  Maybe if we credited our children with the ability to understand complex emotions, and trusted them not be permanently traumatised by a drop of blood onscreen, we might be doing the best for their development in the long-term.