Friday, 7 January 2011

Geeking out for the cause

A couple of months ago, I spent a whole afternoon constructing a plastic boat with a hollow tube poking up through the middle, just to see what the water in the tube would do. I'd read about moon pools, but I wanted to see it for myself.

It was all for the cause of my own fictional ship, one of the central elements in my story. I knew I wanted it to have a sort of hollow gear chamber in the middle, connected to the water, and I knew I'd seen things like that in movies, but the questions kept growing. Should it be pressurized? What did it need to function without internal pressure? How much of the rest of the ship (and the people who lived on it) would be below the water line? A bit of Googling for answers led me down a geeky rabbit hole, including the startling discovery that the same people who believe that the remains of Noah's Ark are preserved on a mountaintop somewhere also believe that it had a structure not far off from the one I'd given my ship. Including the moon pool.

Before I knew it, I was cutting a hole in the base of a plastic food container and cannibalizing the plastic tube from the pump-top of an empty bottle of moisturiser.

It was a productive day. No, seriously. I may not have put many words to the (virtual) page, but I did gain a new and concrete understanding of the world I was creating, one that led to a complete restructuring of my fictional society, and even of my plot. That little boat floating in my kitchen sink kicked off a whole creative revolution.

Today has kind of been like that, only without the arts and crafts. I hit a point in the story where I absolutely had to understand some of the central rules to my fictional world before I could move forward. Four hours later, I've got a head full of harmonics theories, musical notation, and historical tuning techniques for keyboard instruments, and it's blowing my mind a little.

I freaking love days like this.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The good life

Two months. Just shocking, isn't it? Luckily, my novelling hasn't fallen as far as my blogging, although I did give myself a holiday for the, er, holidays. It was essential survival tactics.

But today I got back to it, and I was surprised at how happy I was to be back in that world again. I'd missed it. I'd missed my characters, and their universe. My first step to writerly rehabilitation this morning was to re-read the first few chapters to get back in the flow, and it was fun. Weirdly, 'fun' isn't a word I often associate with writing. 'Rewarding,' yes. 'Enjoyable', 'exhilarating', even occasionally 'thrilling', but rarely fun. I agonise over details; I delete more than I write. I do a lot of frowning at the screen and shaking my head. My husband can sit down, crack his knuckles and start typing away without pause, whipping out a cracking little scene and not worrying too much about the flaws. I make him shut the office doors when he does that, so I don't hear all that prolific typing and get jealous.

But today? That was fun. I put on a weird mix of Daft Punk, Muse, Live, Billie Holliday, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and then I let all that atmosphere gel into a scene about the nightlife in a great city in the belly of a clockwork ship, where the tick-tock of the gears set the rhythm for musicians and pedestrians alike. It may be a really stupid idea, and it might not make the final cut. But damn, it was fun to write.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010



I have today off, to make up for working Saturday. Off. Free. I had visions of a bumper word count crop, a glorious personal all-day write-in.

Aside from a blog comment on Shakesville, this post is the ONLY THING I've written all day.

I blame Satan.

UPDATE: After the hubby came home we had a big ol' Nano session. I wrote 1,755 words, which is precisely 88 more than the necessary Nano daily average. Take that, Satan!!

Monday, 1 November 2010


An elite and dedicated group of friends of mine this morning got a text message from me much cheerier than I'm usually capable of before noon or so. Spelled out in caps, accompanied by too many exclamation points and by an emoticon so smiley it verged on the pathological, it radiated so much sheer happy that my mobile ACTUALLY FROZE, it was so overwhelmed by JOY. Because today, friends, is the first of November, and that means it's Day One of National Novel Writing Month.

For the uninitiated (you poor things must be so very, very sad!), NaNoWriMo is a yearly challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. It works out to about 1,700 words a day, and it requires a writing pace utterly indifferent to niceties like grammar and quality. This will be the fourth year we've participated, and by 'we', I mean my husband and I and a hardy group of intelligent and funny friends capable of unimaginable feats of literary genius. Every year, we hold weekly write-ins at our flat -- everyone brings laptops, booze and junk food according to taste, and we alternate between an hour of furious typing and an hour of reading out what we've written. It's ridiculously fun.

Of course, this is just the morning of Day One. This, right now, is probably the most optimistic I'm going to feel all month. I'll keep you posted.

Disclaimer: I'm massively sleep-deprived this morning. In a fit of Halloween spirit, yesterday I read some mildly scary things about sleep paralysis and then watched some mildly scary things about horror movies. Then I couldn't get to sleep for fear I'd wake up to a silent and evil figure watching me, and when I did get to sleep, I dreamt about being in a slasher film. Because I'm a wuss, and also because I have trouble with the most basic tenets of cause and effect. As a result, despite two cups of coffee, I'm still not confident that this post is at all coherent. If it is either incoherent or weird, I apologize. In future I promise to wake up before blogging.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Rules for the Leap

Don't know how many South Park fans are reading this, but if you're out there, do you remember the Underpants Gnomes? Of course you do. For the uninitiated, they were these little magical critters that stole underpants. Later Stan and Kyle et al discovered the gnomes' secret underwear stash, along with their plan to leverage this life of crime into untold riches. The plan was this:

1. Collect underpants
2. ?
3. Profit

They were a little fuzzy on the details of that second step.

I bring this up because my own second step could use a little work. It's very, very easy to talk about writing, about ideas for characters, about how much I plan to get done tomorrow. But it's also remarkably easy to talk about all this without actually getting any writing done. Do a Google search for writing advice, and sooner or later you'll run across the acronym BICFOK. It stands for 'Butt in chair, fingers on keys'. It is shocking how difficult it can be to put yourself in that physical position, but it's pretty damn crucial to make a habit of it. You know, to actually write.

But isn't writing a glorious labour of love? Isn't it a passion? Isn't it fun? Well, yes and no. For me, it's actually pretty agonising. Just agonising in a good way. I know some fantastic writers who seem to overflow onto the page, who can barely hold back the stories pouring out of them, and for whom editing is a matter of pruning it all back to manageable form. I'm not one of those writers. Mine tends to work more like knitting, stitch after careful stitch. It takes a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness, a sort of zoning in and focusing on tiny details like a hippie on acid. And I get very, very easily distracted.

My biggest problem is a very 21st-century one. My husband and I call it 'internet hypnosis', and we're both highly susceptible. All I have to do is type the first letter or two of a favourite blog into the address bar and suddenly I'm swept down the rabbit hole. Especially if there are links. I'll suddenly find myself desperate to read, say, a list of the top 20 robot henchmen in geekdom. Or a slideshow of the world's most luxurious rooftop swimming pools. Or (ahem) a Sesame Street version of True Blood. But my biggest addiction is feminist blogs -- Shakesville, Tiger Beatdown -- where I can get utterly lost in the details of, say, the Stupak amendment or (irresistibly combining loves) a feminist take on Doctor Who.

There's just too much noise in my head.

So I'm going to lay down some ground rules, right here, publicly and in black and white (or the blog-design version of that). I need to slow down my internal rhythm, and that's going to take some drastic steps. So:

1. No web surfing. That includes following links, watching ANY YouTube video (even Cat Yodeling or Sesame Street), or so much as opening a browser without a clear idea of what website I plan to visit.
2. If I have spare time that cannot be filled by writing, I will read books instead of blogs.
3. I will only respond to notifications I get via e-mail, rather than seeking them out. My e-mail is very nice. It tells me if somebody's commented on my blog or left me a message on Facebook. It even lets me read the messages and comments, right there in the e-mail. I will only go to those sites if I intend to write a post or a reply, not just to browse.
4. Feminist blogs are a treat for when I've put in a good solid writing session. But the above rules still apply -- no following links.
5. No geek sites, including Topless Robot, Cracked, or Den of Geek. Unless my husband is reading them out loud to me.
6. If I find myself resorting to anything else to feed the distraction monkey, I'll add it to the list.
7. All of these rules still apply when breaking them would not involve writerly procrastination. This isn't just about the actual time involved; it's about curing myself of this self-induced, artificial, web-based ADHD. It's about giving myself the brain of a writer, instead of the brain of an over-caffeinated 12-year-old.
8. I'm still allowed to blog. But not if it starts to qualify for Number 6.

Yeah, think that about covers it. So from now on, if you see me posting YouTube links on Facebook, please don't encourage me. Give me a stern virtual look and point me to this post. Or just ignore me altogether.

And if your underwear goes missing, just know that it's going to a good cause.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Big Leap

I handed in my 30-day notice at work yesterday. For two years, I've worked for a cultural charity in the heart of Edinburgh in a position that a lot of people would kill for. The money is decent, the work is important and ever-changing, and I've been allowed to treat a book shop as my own personal playground. I'm quitting so I can work as a run-of-the-mill office temp, taking a potential pay cut of thousands per year.

My reasons for quitting other jobs, while many, were usually a bit more convincingly dramatic than this one. Because I'm going into full-time volunteer work, say, or because I'm moving to Scotland. Because I'm going back for a higher degree, or because I've found a more challenging job with better pay. But this?

Still pretty dramatic, actually. I want an easy job with predictable hours so I can focus on the writing. Okay, that doesn't sound very dramatic after all. But it feels dramatic, mostly because it calls bullshit on me, and on pretty much my entire life. The truth is, this is literally the best chance I'll ever have to actively and seriously pursue writing as anything more than a hobby, creative writing Master's notwithstanding. Think it'll get any easier once I lock into some other, demanding career? Once we get a bigger flat and need to keep up with the mortgage? Once we have a baby? This is IT.

So I'm leaving my job, and fortunately I have the World's Most Understanding and Supportive Husband, who is also understandably a bit nervous, as he really would like a bigger flat and a baby and all that (so would I). In other words, the pressure's on. Before, if I didn't write for a long time, nobody really noticed. Now, everyone will.

So you wanna do this, or what? Okay, then. Let's do this.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


I won't lie -- today was a bit of a slog. I had high hopes for a gangbusting kind of day, a 5000-worder, but I've managed exactly 1,956. But I did manage that, and I'm still kind of shocked.

I've got some sort of writerly brain defect that consistently forgets exactly how I've managed this in the past. And by 'this', I mean any writing, at all. Somehow, every time I approach a project, every single time, I get the notion that I should know what I'm doing. I believe very firmly that I can't put a single word down until I know my characters, my plot, where I'm going with this thing. But the truth is, that has never, ever happened. Every story I've ever written, long or short, has started with little more than a single image, or a line of dialogue. And somehow, magically, every time, once I've written that one thing, another thing comes after that. It's not something I would have come up with in a million years of planning, and I probably would have come up with something completely different if I'd waited a day to write it. But the person who I was at that particular time did come up with it. And the same thing happens all over again with the next sentence, the next scene.

So today was about wrestling with my faith. Because that's what it is -- absolute faith in the person I will be when I sit down at the keyboard. Faith in the process, and in my typing fingers. I've been surprised several times today at the way this kind of faith paid off. My character would feel something powerful that I hadn't known about thirty seconds ahead of time, or do something that came entirely out of the blue, but was absolutely true. And I made it through nearly 2000 words that way, one surprise after another.