Month: October 2017

Surviving NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is almost upon us. It is a glorious thing to be celebrated, but it can also be gruelling. The nominal goal of 50,000 words is eminently doable but takes a significant investment of time and energy. This investment only increases if you are aiming for loftier heights: 100,000 words in the month takes three hours of fast writing every day.

You can do it, but you have to commit to it.

How do you make it through, though? How do you both succeed at NaNoWriMo and come out the other side with more than the merest shreds of your former life still intact?

Follow The Rules

I don’t mean the ground rules of the National Novel Writing Month challenge (ie no existing work, 50,000 word minimum, and ideally going in blind). Those are more in the way of guidelines, and there is a whole community of NaNoWriMo rebels who choose to flout them1.

The Rules I mean here are the ones I follow and come down to these points:

  1. never look back – don’t read anything until you’re done. Looking at yesterday’s work is a source of self-doubt and second-guessery. It also can trigger premature editing. If you must re-read, at least only do so after your word count quota is done for the day.
  2. don’t delete anything – you type it, you count it. If there are words that no longer please you then mark them as unwanted: use strike through formatting, or enclose in [square brackets].
  3. turn off the Internet – cat videos can wait, as can Wikipedia rat holes. If there is something that needs to be looked up than [enclose your question in square brackets]. That way you can both remember to check that detail later, and count the research note words!

The unofficial fourth rule is to back up your novel. You will be sad if you do not and it is lost. Trust me on this. Back up your files multiple times a day, preferably in multiple places.

Accept the Commitment

One of the best pieces of advice from the mother ship is to tell your friends and family that you are doing NaNoWriMo. This firstly tells your family why you are disappearing off at strange times to be by yourself for hours on end, but secondly it holds you accountable.

You also need to accept that this is what you are doing — set aside time to write, and then turn up at those times and make words. Even if the words come slowly, turn up.

Your typing speed isn’t that important2, as long as you’re not thinking about the typing so much as the story you are communicating. It only takes a typing speed of 17 words per minute to reach a pace of a thousand words in an hour, so touch typing is not essential3. But assuming that you can write at that speed then you will need to spend 90-120 minutes a day on average in front of the keyboard.

In other words, you will need to make time to do this. Set aside another hobby, or cut down on your TV. Take the bus rather than driving.

Your best path to victory is to write every day, but an occasional day off won’t hurt as long as you have built up a buffer (ie you are ahead of the pace you have set yourself). Buffers also help deal with unexpected events like a sudden change in employment status4 or illness.

Look After Yourself

The thing I would not cut is exercise5. If that is a routine you have then you already know the benefits of consistent exercise. If you are spending a couple of hours a day sitting down at the keyboard, then a daily burst of activity will be doubly beneficial. if you have access to a treadmill desk then that is a very good tool to mix the two.

Eating well helps your brain work. Try to eat sustaining meals with proteins and other long-chain polymers in them rather than sugar and fat. Too much caffeine may make your brain bounce around inside your skull but it won’t help you focus on the story.

Finally, get some sleep. Writing is tiring work, particularly if you’re not used to it. It is tempting to write instead of sleeping, but that is not a sustainable thing to do.

Help Keep the Event Going

If you are doing NaNoWriMo and you can afford to do so, donate to the organisation; web sites don’t host themselves. Buy a T shirt or some other merch; give them a cash donation.

Settle In For The Long Haul

I’ve billed this as how to survive NaNoWriMo, but truly this is all good advice on how to transition into a longer term writing commitment:

  1. set aside regular time to write, and turn up to do the work
  2. talk to people about your writing to hold yourself accountable
  3. keep yourself healthy
  4. help others

Good luck in your new writing lifestyle!

[1] this community of rebels is one I have been a part of several times in my NaNoWriMo career.

[2] I focus on typing because this is generally the most efficient way to capture words. I deeply admire those who hand-write their novels; it is not something I could do for a month.

[3] I have not formally learned touch typing. Most of my early keyboard time was for code which doesn’t submit easily to touch typing techniques because it consists of (to quote the Pointy-Haired Boss) bad spelling and too much punctuation.

[4] this has happened to me twice during November, once when I suddenly had a job and once when I suddenly did not. It is stressful either way.

[5] this is as much a reminder to myself as advice to others. Having November be no-exercise month has been a consistent issue for me.

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The T-Shirts of NaNoWriMo: 2017 Edition

this year’s super T shirt!

This year’s shirt follows the splendid theme of writing superheroes. I’m delighted to say that I remembered to order the shirt far enough ahead that I had it to wear for the kick-off on Saturday.

I’m a little sad that I wrote last year’s story about superhumans rather than this year’s, but this year’s story will be great.

To the word mines!

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Captain Underpants

If you are not a parent of a young child* or have not recently been a young child* yourself you may not have heard of Captain Underpants.

You are missing something.

Captain Underpants is the gloriously silly creation of Dav Pilkey, a superhero invented and given substance by the protagonists of the story, George and Harold.

There are lots of people that, for no good reason that I can perceive, do not like Captain Underpants. It is juvenile, and it contains a lot of toilet humour, and the heroes are subject to a crushingly authoritarian educational regime, but it is also aimed at late elementary school kids (8-10 seems about right) so none of these things seem to be inappropriate to me. The Captain Underpants books are ones that regularly appear on lists of books which parents have asked to have banned from schools. I have not heard of such a request succeeding; librarians generally agree that books that kids like to read should be available.

The thing I like most about Captain Underpants is that the storytelling is ingenious. There are a lot of moments where I, as a storyteller, wonder how the story is going to resolve this time. Pilkey doesn’t cheat with deus ex machina devices: the seeds of the solution are present earlier in the story, but they tend to flower in unexpected ways.

But it’s also funny, and the characters are endearing — even the appallingly ineffectual teachers have their endearing qualities.

Would I recommend these books to adult readers to enjoy without a child? No. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a great deal of wit in the books. They’re definitely in the set of “books that parents can stand to read with their kids more than once”.

Which brings me to the film: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.

I’ll be honest, when I saw the trailer I was delighted. It didn’t look exactly like the books but it was definitely drawing its aesthetic from them.

And the film itself does not disappoint. The animation is rich and weighty, with cartoonish moments where they are appropriate. It does a splendid job of bringing the storylines it borrows from the books to life, and preserves the humour of the original stories to a tee. My favourite bit is where the film uses the same story telling device as the books to depict large-scale action scenes, and pokes fun at the fragility of that device. I chortled.

Actually, no: I laughed. I laughed all the way through this film. I was quite buoyed up by it.

I talked about canon in my piece about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and the film differs from the canonical story in the books. But that’s OK – the change simplifies an aspect of the story which was a tad over-complicated. The result is different but reasonable, akin to the multiple versions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as it has travelled hitchhiked from medium to medium.

If your kids (or you) are fans of the good Captain then you may well have watched this film already. But if you haven’t, and you’re open to some very silly stories told in a very silly way, then I think you should give this one a try.

[*] probably a boy, truly, although I wouldn’t stop anyone from reading it.

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NaNoWriMo and Me

There is a reason I talk a lot about National Novel Writing Month: I wouldn’t be writing now without it.

The Time of Not Writing

I wanted to write since I was a teenager, although I didn’t articulate the ambition until I was in my early twenties. I didn’t know how to begin, I didn’t know how to do any of it, but I knew I wanted to tell stories. I also didn’t know what those stories were.

Most of the non-academic writing I did when I was at University was for roleplaying scenarios. After graduation I started writing some serial fiction for my co-workers at the first day job, and for a few years I was writing a fair bit. Most of the stuff I finished is on this web site but I can’t say I would recommend it.

Then I tried to change who I was.

There was a new girlfriend, and an attempt to take my day job more seriously, and some regrettable decisions about moving to a new town. There were good things that came out of that time, but writing was not one of them. I had a go at starting a new novel, but fell into the “perfect first chapter” trap. Then my computer crashed, and I lost all of it*.

I have many regrets from that time, but not writing any fiction for the best part of ten years is probably the greatest. I dallied with the abandoned novel from notes, but fell into the same trap of continually editing the first chapter to make it consistent with new words.

It was not until 2004 when the whispers of National Novel Writing Month finally reached my ears early enough for me to do something about them. That was when I took the plot of the abandoned novel and turned it into 50,000 words of story. That was when I started writing. I have not stopped.

The Time of Writing

The question that I am wrestling with at the moment is whether to do NaNoWriMo this year.

This would be my fourteenth year, potentially my fifteenth manuscript. I love the energy of it, the sheer raw power of word generation. It is exciting! Lots of my friends are doing it.

… but I have things that need to be revised. Is it possible that I could work on those alongside the NaNovel?

I do not quite do NaNoWriMo every month. There are people I know who do just that and who therefore don’t bother with the official event. I write year round now but November is still the most productive part of the year for me because it is The Month where my writing becomes a priority. And I have a story I would like to work on, a sequel to one of the part works I wrote for friends at my first day job, The Manx Connection. I am looking forward to working on the outline and the characters.

… but I don’t need another unfinished manuscript. I have a dozen of those already. Adding another one to the pile seems frivolous.

Well. I’m not sure, still, although I will have to decide in the next couple of days because if I don’t get some kind of outlining done then there won’t be a book at all.

What it comes down to is that NaNoWriMo is important to me and to who I am as a writer. If I participate this year it will be in celebration of that rather than out of any kind of effort to make a new publishable book.

But whatever I do, NaNoWriMo will be fun.

[*] back up your novel! In multiple ways, and check the backups work.

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Organising Large Collections

I accrete hobbies like a caddis fly accretes stones: they are my shell and my comfort place.

Some of these hobbies are compact, but many of them consist in some part of collections of things. Often those collections can be very large. Figuring out how to organise these collections to properly support the hobby can be a hobby in itself.

Some collections more or less organise themselves. Books, in my experience, are pretty easy to organise: fiction by author then by series order; non-fiction by subject then by title. Books are to some extent their own index. Music collections and comics work in similar ways – there are obvious ordering functions in the content, and that is all the indexing you need.

The specific example I want to explore in this post is my collection of Magic cards. What it illustrates is both how to sort your collection to suit the way you use your collection, but also how those needs change and how to adapt.

The Most Common Strategy

Magic cards have many attributes: card type, creature type, power/toughness, casting cost, colour, set, rarity, keyword — fundamentally you can sort according to any of these.

The most common strategy for storing your cards that I see mentioned by Magic commentators is to sort by set, then by rarity. Opinions are divided on whether to sort alphabetically, or by card type, but that’s the core of it. Commons and uncommons are likely to go in a box, while rares, mythics, and other more exotic cards go in a binder or portfolio of some kind.

This is a fine approach, and is especially good when collecting cards for Standard play where the set printing is relevant. However, there are several failings:

  • reprints — some cards get printed in multiple sets. Having the cards split by set makes finding a reprint difficult.
  • overflowing boxes — I like to use the fat pack/bundle boxes as storage for cards from a particular set. However, the number of cards I have from a set might vary wildly: one box might be almost empty, while another might have more cards than I can actually fit into the box.
  • fragmentary sets — I only have a few fat pack boxes, and there have been dozens upon dozens of sets. Having per set storage for these mixed sets was… well, an utter mess, frankly.

Catalogue Then Store

As a side note, I like to not just collect things but know what I have collected. I put my deck lists and cards into Deckbox, so I have a flawed but still useful record. The biggest flaw is that the set for each card is unreliable, which makes finding a particular edition of a reprint even harder.

But, having a catalogue means that I can apply my favourite organisational method: don’t.

Or, more precisely, do as much organisation as is necessary to find something, but then rely on an index to support searching and sorting.

The impetus for this was that I don’t care about Standard, the primary format where it matters hich set a card comes from. What I like to play are eternal formats like Commander and Pauper. For those, finding the card is more important than keeping it in the right set box.

My organisation for cards now is as follows:

  • put one copy of each common or uncommon card I have from a set into its set box, if I have one. Divide these by colour, then divide again by creature v non-creature spells, then sort alphabetically.
  • all the other commons and uncommons are in a series of boxes divided in the same way: by colour, then creature v non-creature, then alphabetically. I also order by set printing if necessary.
  • rares and mythics go in binder pages, divided in the same way but in a slightly different sequence. I have a creature binder and a non-creature binder, and the colour divisions are then within those binders.

One specific thing to note is that I’ve given up on splitting commons and uncommons. This is mostly because of reprints where rarity has been shifted.

The benefits of this system are that I can find anything in at most two dips when I know the set (if it’s less than three years old), the colour, the rarity (rare/mythic vs common/uncommon), and the card type.

Indexed Collections

I would highly recommend an approach like this for collections which are both numerous and hard to search efficiently. Magic is a game where obscure cards often find new relevance because of new sets, so it is not possible to group cards rationally in a robust way.

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To Prologue Or Not To Prologue

Prologues have a bad reputation. Readers report they often skip prologues, agents and publishers dislike them because so many readers skip them, and they are, unfortunately, often bad.

… and yet they pop up everywhere. Many traditional tales begin with what amounts to a prologue: the time when the princess is blessed and/or cursed at her naming ceremony, or when the whims of the gods are revealed to the reader while being obscure to the characters. Lots of speculative fiction uses prologues, for better or for worse. And James Bond usually has a prologue scene, as Our Hero busily finishes off a previous assignment with a quip and a debonair swagger.

So what are the benefits of prologues, when are they not worth it, and why am I thinking about this at the moment?

Why Prologue?

Your prologue could just be the first chapter of your book, but very often a prologue will have qualitative differences from the rest of the narrative that militate against doing that.

You might need a prologue if:

  • the events which set up the main narrative are widely separated in time or space (eg where there are childhood events that shape the main character’s story).
  • the initiating events are driven by characters who are not the main focus of the narrative (eg the aforementioned capricious gods).
  • the promise of the book needs to be established where the opening chapters cannot provide that (eg A Game of Thrones, where the reader needs to know about the supernatural threat but the story starts a long way from the threat).
  • the reader should know what is going on for the purposes of dramatic irony.

There are real reasons to put these kinds of narrative content into a prologue, because it may be too jarring as the first chapter.

Why Not Prologue?

Is your prologue dull? Cut it.

Does your prologue consist of an info dump or gazetteer? Weave the information the reader needs to know into the main narrative when the reader needs to know it. You can always hang on to that material for the “companion” books you’ll be able to publish .

What relation to the story does the prologue have? To return to the James Bond example, there are pre-credits scenes which have exactly zero relationship to the main story such as the one where Bond disposed of Blofeld by dropping him down a chimney, but the rest of the film didn’t even reference the death of arguably his greatest nemesis*.

So, if the prologue doesn’t have any relationship to the story, why is it there?

In other words, if your reader can actually skip the prologue and still follow the rest of the story, then it’s probably not necessary.

Case Study: Prologues I Have Known

I don’t usually put in prologues. I like to get the story moving as soon as I can, demonstrate the agency of the main character, that kind of thing. But I have two books at the moment which have prologues.

One of these prologues contains a sequence which happens fifteen years or more before the main story, featuring the main character’s father. It sets up a lot of the elements of the setting and their relationship to the main character before she appears, and also presents the promise of the story. It’s telling the reader that there is wonder in the world beyond the rather dour initial setting for the MC. This is a prologue which I think has value, and which is an exciting opening to the book.

The other prologue is one I am struggling with. It’s about main character but (as with the first one) about fifteen years before the main narrative. The initial version was also in a different point of view, omniscient third person rather than first person. I’ve rewritten the prologue to use first person and I think it’s a lot more immediate, but that change has taken away the opportunity for dramatic irony – I can’t present a hidden enemy to the reader without also showing it to the main character.

So I am in a conundrum, where I have a prologue which does a lot to tell you about where the MC’s journey begins, but which also now seems too close in its content to the main narrative. Do I keep it? If not, what information do I need to transplant elsewhere?

Prologues are capricious things.

[*] this was from the late Roger Moore when all sense seemed to leave the film-makers’ heads.

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October things, 2017

September kinda sucked in some important ways. With that said, let’s see what I actually got done.

Three Things for September

  1. revise Song – I’m close on the prologue, if I keep it, and I’ve received good feedback on the first three chapters, but I am further away than I would like from being done.
  2. critique group – they are lovely people, with fascinating writing. All of us have very different styles, so getting to read these pieces by such distinct personalities is glorious.
  3. short fiction – made some progress on the summer’s holiday story, to the point where the first draft is nearly done. I also planned out two stories which I am going to write in October. Didn’t actually finish anything, though.
  4. audiobook experiments – figured out necessary settings for self-monitoring during recording, not to mention actually using the plugged-in microphone. No recordings yet, though, nor any audio processing.

So, touched everything but only really succeeded on one of the four.

As I said at the top, September really kinda sucked. A lot of this was down to Sam’s death which really knocked me flat, far more perhaps than was warranted. He was an important person to me.

But, things are more or less back on track so let’s continue on with the annual things review.

Three Things for 2017

The year is 75% done. Are my goals 75% complete?

  1. finish A Turquoise Song – the third draft is behind, but what I have seems good.
  2. talk to some agents, aiming to obtain representation – I will send out samples once I have samples worth sending out. Awesomeness is required.
  3. investigate producing Livia as an audiobook – still under way. I will need to do work on a recording booth or studio to really get good audio, but I have the software setup to be able to capture the words.

In other words, no: things are not 75% done. October will be better.

Three Things for October

  1. revise Song – continue the third draft.
  2. short fiction – complete 2-4 stories, writing at least 500 words a day.
  3. NaNoWriMo planning – can I even work on this with Song unfinished? If I can, what do I work on?

October’s theme is catching up on what I dropped in September.

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