Category Archives: Write

When The Student Is Ready

When I started StoryADay May back in 2010, some of 100 or so people who took part really stuck with me. One was Gabriela Pereira, who had just finished up an MFA and was transitioning from student to working writer. We shared an enthusiasm both for writing and for the hair-brained scheme.

Back then, I was a couple of years ahead of her in the online, community-building, content-marketing , writing-for-pay experience. Now she has soared into the writing world as a leader, a teacher, an inspirer and, in her own words, Chief Instigator at her project:  DIY MFA.

This afternoon I tuned in to her latest webinar, sort of as a favor. I’ve heard the talk before, live and in person, and was really just showing in case no one else did. Of course, there were tons of people on the call, loads of questions from attendees, and Gabriela fired people up and sent them away with tools and techniques to make their writing better, as always.

But — it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did — what I hadn’t expected to happen was that I had a breakthrough about my own novel-in-progress, while listening to Gabriela talk. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the turning point at the mid-point of my novel needed to be. More than knowing it, I could *picture* it.

I rushed off to my office and scrawled three pages of notes, opened up Scrivener and started adding scene cards to the second half of my novel’s file. I got super excited, and then realized how much writing I had to do…then chose to see that as exciting too!

Did I mention I’ve heard this talk at least twice before?

Lesson learned: when you find a teacher/mentor/friend whose words you really connect to, stick to them. Revisit their lessons. Re-read there books. Get on webinars and conference calls with them. Ask questions. Go over and over their lessons at different stages of your development and the development of each of your projects.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears, as my old mate the Buddha apparently never said.

If you want to get in on the remaining webinars in Gabriela’s current series, here’s some info:

Perfect Your Plot, Structure Your Story – December 14

Rock Your Revisions – December 21

 

(Some links on this page—the webinars and the one to Scrivener—are affiliate links, but I never recommend anything I don’t believe in 100%.)

Being Kind To Future Julie

This morning I was working on a non-fiction project that has a real deadline and real paycheck attached.

After a couple of days of feeling under the weather it was a real joy to wake up feeling fine and energetic today.

But I did not let that fool me. I knew that there was still a real danger of me allowing myself to get derailed, stuck or caught in a loop of procrastinatoin if I wasn’t vigilant.

So I did all the things I’m supposed to do: I got dressed in clothes that are semi-professional looking; I put on my tiny, desktop humidifier with the hinoki essential oils (which Is supposed to make me smarter, but which in reality is just something I’m using to trigger my brain to understand that We Are In Work Mode); I gathered all my notes and decided to focus only in a certain slice of the project; I activated Freedom to stop me accidentally surfing Facebook; and I set a timer for 45 minutes, to create some urgency and to promise myself a break. I even made a coffee date with a friend for this afternoon, so that I knew I couldn’t catch up on any missed time, later.

Sometimes all this works, and sometimes it doesn’t,

Today I decided to try another technique I’ve seen in productivity manuals. I tried to focus on Future Julie and how happy she would be when she has a finished draft that she can let sit for a few days. I thought about how grateful Future Julie would be when not struggling under the weight of a huge amount of work, and how happy she would be that she could work on what remains, with a lightness that would not otherwise be there. I picture Future Julie finishing up a really kickass article because she wasn’t horribly stressed.

And today, at least, it  worked.

 

 

Future Julie Thanks Past Julie

[NB The Amazon links in this article are affiliate links]

The Playlist of The Book

Spotify thumbnails for Spiked!The novel I’m currently writing is set in 1986.

To get me in the mood, I created a custom playlist in Spotify, containing all kinds of groovy chart music that I was listening to back in 1986.

I looked up the UK chart hits from 1985 and 1986 and picked out all the stuff that I didn’t absolutely hate (interestingly, most of the stuff I left out was the stuff that my American friends remember fondly: American hair bands and such).

You can listen along, and then, when you read the novel, you’ll be sure to recognize the songs that get name-checked in the story!

Open the Spiked! playlist in Spotify

Recharging The Batteries

Batteries
I love sitting alone in a room, with just my ideas and the silence and the limitless possibilities of my imagination.

But there are days when I really envy people with bosses, and other people looking over your shoulder, and all the trappings of a job, to keep you honest.

On days when I am tired, or under the weather, or when I make the mistake of looking at the news before I start work, it can be hard to force myself to switch into creative mode. Which project to work on? Let me think: which one feels the least like heavy lifting? None of them? Well, there’s no one watching, maybe I’ll just watch a clip of Colbert…and this video of some actor being interviewed, and this news show about something depressing…and how can three hours have passed?!

Recharging The Batteries

The best thing I can say about today – work wise- is that I did some recharging of the creative batteries.

[update: 7:09 pm: Success! I went out to a coffee shop and fired up the laptop. Something about only having 40 minutes stripped away all the insecurities and I added a few hundred words to my novel. More fun than that: I had my character flipping through some photographs of suspects only to discover a face she never expected to see! I hadn’t expected to see it either, and it certainly puts the cat amongst the pigeons…but not in a way that overly-complicates things. Just makes it more fun. Wheee!]

I read this interview with Ridley Scott about replacing a Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in a film that is coming out next month. The man turns 80 next month and his work ethic and excitement for what he does, leaps out of the words.

And I watched this interview with a great Gerwig, who was super-excited about doing more of her work.

The absolute best thing about the day, though, was getting to walk into town through perfect autumn weather, for a sneaky wee lunch date with my man. (Aw!)

The Antidote To The News

Whenever I let the misery of current events get to me, there is no better cure than to tune my brain to someone who is doing what they do, and doing it with love and zest and near-maniacal passion. I don’t even care what “it” is. There is something energizing and kind of sexy about anybody doing something they love.

So: What do you do to recharge your batteries?

Storyboarding

One of the reasons I write is to get the ideas out of my hamster-wheel brain and into some kind of organized form.

It’s one of the reasons I like writing non-fiction. Fiction is a blast, but non-fiction feels like solving a puzzle.

MIND MAPS AND SOMETHING MORE

When I’m in the early stages of a project, I’m a big fan of the mind-map. You know, those big spidery diagrams that allow ideas to spill out of your brain in any direction, and land, semi-bundled, on branches on the page.

Usually, that’s enough to keep me on track.

Today I was working on an article and I felt I needed something a little more structured, but I can’t get behind a simple list. Lists just feel so…linear. And un-visual. (That’s not a real thing, is it?)

I’ve been taking notes in Penultimate — the Evernote hand-writing note-taking app. I discovered, when I clicked ‘new note’, that they offer a ‘storyboard’ template, along with their ruled pages and blank pages and dotted pages and all kinds of other templates.

So I gave it a try.

And now my article is neatly divided into four sections with goofy sketches a the top to remind me what each section is meant to be about.

StoryBoarding

Now I’m thinking that might be a better way to go for my novel revision, too.

A CHANGE IS AS GOOD AS A REST

I’ve heard people talk about storyboards before, but I could never see how I, a non-artist, non-film-maker, could make them work for me. I’ve been around long enough to know that if I try something just because it sounds cool and new, my productivity drops off while I learn the method, then it may never be a method I need.

But sometimes I get kind of stuck and need to try something new. That was me, today.

I was faced with the prospect of being overwhelmed by a wall of notes. Creating these storyboards, complete with sketches, helped me signpost my way through them.

FORCING IT VS. FINDING IT

Sometimes forcing something new into your process slows you down. Sometimes trying something new reinvigorates your process.

Today’s experiment was a win.

Do You Know The Dashing White Sergeant?

I’m writing a story set in Scotland and I just realized it needs a ceilidh scene.

(In case you’re wondering, a ceilidh (KAY-lee) in this context is a wild dance with lots of Scottish country dancing. There are other, more sedate definitions, but this is the kind I like to go to.)

Here’s the traditional tune, with some fairly well-behaved dancers:

Here’s how the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society would like everyone to do the dance:

And here’s the kind of barely-contained confusion and chaos it usually causes, given that half the people at a ceilidh will have never danced it before, being from somewhere other than Scotland. This is not helped by the fact that most of the Scots won’t have danced it since they were last forced to, in Primary 7 PE class, where they spent most of their time trying not die from touching the hand of a member of the opposite sex, rather than committing the steps to memory.

It’s a heck of a lot of fun though.

I wish it was me, not just my protagonist, who was going to a ceilidh!

Side note: If you’re in the Aberdeen (Scotland) area, and need a good ceilidh band, I can heartily recommend Yous Dancin?

(“Yous Dancin?” being the traditional way to ask a lady to dance, in my part of Scotland. Best delivered in an off-hand, I-don’t-really-care-either-way kind of fashion. The correct response being “You askin?”, followed by “Aye, Ah’m askin” and “Then Ah’m dancin”.

Or a shrug. A shrug will do, too.)

The Girl Who Circumnavigated The Globe In An Act Of Her Own Making

Image of earth from space

This story was written as part of StoryADay May 2017. It is being posted here as part of our annual StoryFest Showcase. It will soon be available in an audio version via the 999 Words or Less Podcast. Special thanks to author Phil Giunta, for the opening line.

Whatever happens, don’t die. See you Monday.

#

The note was tucked under a button-cover on the instrument panel.

#

The air pressure settled with a hiss. Unlatching my helmet, I wished, as always, that I had got rid of the ‘glamor girl updo’. Next time I’m shaving my head, no matter what the contract says.

The single viewport in the control room was my only window into open space. It had been three weeks and I was ready to drink it in.

But first, the light of the departing shuttle’s engine-burn had to fade. As it did, I squinted against the white-bright glare of the shuttle as it filled my viewport. I turned to watch the last unnatural shadow I would cast for a week creep across the panel behind me. When I turned back, the craft carrying the crew of the Opticorp Satellite Rotel had slid from view.

I was as alone as it is possible for a gal to be, in 2172.

#

Who signs up to be the lone caretaker of a between-bookings space hotel? The same kind of person who used to want to be a lighthouse keeper. A person comfortable in their own skin. A person at ease in their own brain.

People like that—people like me—make other folks uncomfortable.

And so we wall ourselves up in hermitages and lighthouses and libraries. Or we set out to circumnavigate the globe alone on foot, in coracles, dangling in gondolas from balloons, in prop-engined aeroplanes, strapped atop experimental rockets, or tucked inside the planet’s first permanent orbiting hotel.

#

The note was a joke, of course.

In all the PR materials they make it sound like important work: personing the station while it’s empty. In theory I’m all that stands between the company’s massive investment and an unforeseen disaster. The PRers even created a dramatic simulation of my digital double spotting some flaw and heroically correcting it just as the next batch of high-paying tourists pull up at the docking port.

Fake headlines spiraled in: Disaster Averted! Lone Hospitalitynaut Saves Station! Heiress Proves Her Worth!

Oh, didn’t I mention? I’m, like, the most famous person on (sorry ‘off’) planet Earth.
I’m Gaia. Yeah, that Gaia. No other name required, right? Daughter of Alandria Flores, the mega-trillionaire and former President of Pacifica. First quad-parented baby in history. Scrutinized, analyzed, and sometimes-fictionalized every moment of the past 24 years.

I’m good PR, but I almost didn’t get the gig. Alandria was putting some serious pressure on the company to block me, so her assassination couldn’t have come at a better time. For me, I mean. She was in the middle of an election loop, so it wasn’t great for her—on many levels—but when she went up in that column of smoke, at least it meant my dream didn’t have to.

I know. That sounds harsh, right? I imagine some of you have relationships with your various parents that are a little more nourishing than mine. I’ve read novels. I know it happens. I just can’t imagine what that would have been like with Alandria. I mean, let’s be honest. Can we? You knew that face. The set of her jaw. The way she calculated every move ten places further than everyone else? If you were a citizen of Pacifica she probably cared more about your welfare than she did about mine.

I’m not bitter. Just trying to explain how I can be so casual about watching my Primary Parent vaporizing on a livefeed.

Anyway, it worked out for me.

And no, in case you’re wondering, I had nothing to do with it.

But the ‘grieving daughter’ bit did play well for the cameras, and you can’t think that Opticorp hated that.

#

But you probably know all this. You’ve probably seen the documentaries.

So why am I writing this down?

Because it amuses me to think of an alien—either from another region of space, or a human so far into the future that they might as well be—finding this and reading my story, in my words. It’s an exercise in figuring out how I would present myself to someone who doesn’t know who I am.

It’s not an opportunity I’ve ever had. How am I doing?

Plus, I have about 167.5 hours to kill until this caretaker shift is up.

#

Whatever happens, don’t die. See you Monday

#

It’s a joke from the Chief Steward. But it’s a joke in more ways than one, because if anything did go wrong there would be almost nothing I could do, and less time in which to do it.

So why am I really here?

From the company’s point of view: PR.

And from mine? Well, let’s just say I put up with the ‘glamor girl updo’ clause in the contract because of the other clause. The one that says ‘no cameras, no livefeed’ while I’m on board.

#

Sometimes, the Steward told me, the guests take one look out of the offside viewports and that’s all they can handle. They think they’re looking at nothing. They slam the shutters down and spend the rest of the trip with their eyes fixed on Earth—a place they’ve mortgaged themselves to escape, for one expensive week. The vastness of it is too much: too empty or too full; too limitless or too oppressive. They feel too small.

Me? I spend my weeks here looking only outward, into…everything.

And one day soon, when Opticorp’s finished testing their long-range voyager, and are looking for the first woman to travel beyond the reach of human communication, you can guess who’ll be standing on the launch pad, helmet-in-hand, looking up.

###

Does Stephen Moffat Have A Woman Problem?

I keep being surprised to find people who love Doctor Who and Sherlock but hate Stephen Moffat. One thread seems to be to say that he has a ‘woman problem’.

One new friend posted this one her Facebook wall:

“Here’s a game for my fellow #Sherlock and #DoctorWho fans…name me a principal female character written by Moffatt that isn’t a puzzle, a problem, or a sacrifice.”

Some Background

OK, before I rise to the challenge, I should set the stage: I’m a lifelong Doctor Who fan who came on board at the end of Leila’s journeys with the doctor, and grew up under snotty-Romana-then-flirty-Romana, whiny Tegan and the gloriously glamorous AND SMART Nyssa (I so wanted to be her). I barely survived Mel and Perry and was  rewarded with intelligent and fierce Ace who might have been great if they stories hadn’t been mince, just before the show went on indefinite hiatus.

When it came back, i felt utterly betrayed by Russell T. Davies, who let the Doctor become a romantic figure (“Is this a kissing show?”). Part of the appeal, as a kid, of Doctor Who, was the idea that you could either BE the Doctor or run away with the doctor. It was an intelligent, family show, where young people ran off with a (mostly-)avuncular alien and had adventures. Now, as a grown up and new parent, I felt very queasy at the idea of parents being asked to trust this man with their barely-adult children, if he was going to get all sexy. Ugh. Plus there was an awful lot of emotional angst and despair.

Then along came Moffat’s episodes. I was thrilled to see powerful, cheeky women who were largely dismissive of the doctor — certainly not defined by him — and who, more often than not, turned out to be self-rescuing princesses.

Powerful Women In Moffat’s World

The Empty Child turns out to be not just about a creepy child  but about his courageous female relative. Before she even meets the Doctor she is saving kids and being incredibly resourceful (and cheeky) while doing so. With the help of the Doctor she’s even more powerful and becomes not just her own savior but that of her family, her country and quite possibly the world. Huzzah! Everybody lives!

Then along came Sally Sparrow, who carried a whole episode, solved the mystery and saved almost everyone, including her man AND the Doctor, before he even knew who she was.

And OK, The Girl in the Fireplace was a big icky because the little girl fell in love with the Doctor and waited for him, but to her credit she became the most powerful woman in France and saved herself from harm by being level-headed in a crisis and summoning the one person she knew could help.

Other Moffat Women Who Are Not Puzzles, Problems or Sacrifices

Linda from The Press Gang –  She was the editor of the school paper, with all the power and all the flaws you’d expect of a leading character. (I watched and enjoyed this long before I’d heard of Stephen Moffat)

Jeckyl’s wife – She wasn’t a character who appeared much in the show, but she was his motivation for resisting his demons. Does that make her a ‘problem’? If so, then love is a problem, and that’s not an idea to which I can subscribe. No, she doesn’t help out much, but Jeckyl is a show about a man wrestling with his demons. I don’t remember him letting ANYONE help much.

All the women in Coupling – OK, one of them was fairly bonkers, but so was at least one of the guys. Yes, the main woman was a problem for the main character, because: drama and comedy and romance And the other two characters (one male, one female) were pretty and shallow. So ti was completely balanced.

Molly Hooper – Yes, Molly is defined by her relationship to Sherlock, but she has skills and an education and you know she’d be just fine if he disappeared off the face of the earth. You can imagine her having a life without Sherlock and that, I think, counts. But she’s not a leading character (as requested in the initial question).

Detective Donovan – again, not a main character, but still, not a weak, traditional helpless female.

Mrs Hudson – yes, she’s doing traditional domestic work, but she is a well-rounded character.

Mary Moorstan/Watson – I think it’s unfair to criticize Moffat for writing a character who was introduced as a romantic interest, and writing her as…a romantic interest. She’s given a kick-ass job, a mysterious past, more skills than her husband, an ability to make his life better and be made better by him, and she gets more screen time than any other email character in this male-male buddy-cop version of a classic detective story. In the original stories, Mary appears to allow Watson to get heroic for a minute and then, when the practicalities of domestic life got in the way, she was promptly killed off with no ceremony, off-screen (and with no complicating offspring).

Puzzles, Problems & Sacrifices?

And to the extent that any of these women  are puzzles, problems, if they weren’t, where would the conflict come from? If we want characters to be interesting, they can’t just be badass and perfect. Are they used this way more than the men?

Yes, Amy sacrifices her future in this timeline to be with Rory in his timeline. But would you rather be the blundering bloke who accidentally gets zapped back in time or the determined, devoted character who CHOSES which of the people she loves she’s going to be with?

Yes, Clara sacrifices herself (twice) but she comes out of it all right. As does, eventually, Buffy Summers, who has a much harder time of it, I’d argue and Joss Whedon is lauded for writing ‘strong female characters’. In contrast Rory sacrifices himself so often it becomes a punchline. And I didn’t hear anyone complaining about Aslan…

Which leads me to a point: Moffat grew up in a culture steeped in Christian messages. We’re very big on self-sacrifice in Britain in general and in Glasgow in particular: socialist and Presbyterian/Catholic and chip-on-the-shoulder as we were throughout the 20th century.  It’s a culture that believes suffering is good for the soul and that no greater love hath man than he lay down his life for a friend, and all that.

The Doctor sacrifices all the time, in this current incarnation (except when he runs away for a while before facing up to a challenge. A lesson worth learning).

What Else Moffat Does Right

His women have jobs that are not traditionally female, they have skills and abilities, they are sassy and opinionated, they might like a bit of romance but they don’t cease to exist without it.

His couples (especially his married couples) are devoted to each other. They don’t gain their strength from putting the other half of the couple down. They bring out the best in each other, even when they’re bickering. I LOVE this. It is rare and beautiful and healthy.

His scripts are clever. You have to pay attention. They are witty, and all the characters have more going on than they’re telling you. You can always imagine them in their own, spin-off story.

He’s hopeful and funny. Unlike the end of the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor who, which was a maudlin, drawn-out sob-fest full of regrets and misery, Moffat writes stories with endings in which “Everybody lives!” or, even when they don’t get what they want, there’s hope that they’ll get something they can live with (e.g. Clara). We’re not finished with Sherlock yet, and we’ll see where that goes.

So I Respectfully Disagree

No, I don’t think Moffat has a woman problem. I don’t think all his women are problems, puzzles or sacrifices in any way disproportionate to the dramatic needs of the stories he tells or the way he treats men (most of his bad guys are men!)

Few things annoy me more than a shallow, one-dimensional helper-female character, but I just don’t see it with Moffat, unless you’re determined to find it. I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing complexity or dramatic needs to make a character all powerful just because of gender,

First Draft

I think I just finished the first draft of my novel.

There are scenes missing and a lot of cleaning up to do, but I think I’m there. The first draft is as complete as it’s going to be.

I feel remarkably calm. I think it’s because I’m aware of how much work I have to do now.

I’m going to do a ‘scene grid’ or, as I like to think of it, a ‘motif grid’, as recommended by Stuart Horwitz. There are several things that came up during my last few scenes that I realize are key to the story and the character, and I want to make sure I’m getting them in early and often.

I’m going to try not to get overwhelmed in the revision process. Then, hopefully I’ll have a second draft, ready for polishing when I go to UnCon in November.

[small w00t]

I do enjoy my StoryADay stuff and the non-fiction writing I do, but nothing quite compares to the way I feel after I’ve written a piece of fiction. It’s lovely.

Into The Foggy Blue Yonder

Today, I typed up and tweaked the last of the writing I did on the plane last month.

I had used Larry Brook’s Scene Checklist from Story Engineering to help me figure out what I wanted the scene to achieve BEFORE I wrote it, which made it really easy to revise. I noticed that I’d forgotten which character was supposed to be having which emotion, so I tweaked that as I typed it in. Made it stronger. Yay.

Now What?

From here on in, it’s all new material until I get to the actual end of the draft. Because I don’t know exactly what happens next I’m going back to the Scene Checklist from Larry Brooks to figure out what’s IMPORTANT in the next sequence of scenes.

Using this checklist helps me avoid wandering around aimlessly in a scene.

It’s relatively easy to write ‘stuff happening’.

It’s harder to write good, meaningful scenes unless I know in advance what I’m trying to achieve: who are the key players; what’s the key piece of information I want the reader to learn (and have I set that up properly in earlier scenes or will I have to go back and do that?); what emotions do I want the reader to experience when they’re reading it?

Even if you resist outlining, this checklist is a really helpful way to get into the next scene you want to write. It manages to whet my appetite for writing the scene, instead of taking all the joy and anticipation out of it (as I always fear outlining will do).

The plan now is to spend a while, later today, outlining the next scene and thinking hard about what I need to achieve in the first draft of the resolution

It’s important to remember that this is the first draft of the end of the book.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be written.