January Things, 2019

2018 felt like a long year, and yet was it long enough for me to make progress on my goals? Well, let’s find out.

Three Things for December

When I set my December things I didn’t account for how exhausted I would be at the end of the year. Basically, I checked out for the last third of the month because I just needed a break from all of it.

With that caveat, let’s look at the things I said I would do and how much got done.

  1. Cinnamon Harmonies — my goal was to keep working on it, which I achieved up to a point, and I have 10,000 more words on it than I had at the end of November. I floundered on plot, though, so I have a necessary January goal to replan the story. Let’s call this another lesson in needing an outline before starting a draft.
  2. Song fourth draft — feedback was expected from the developmental editor. Feedback received, but not fully processed. The feedback is certainly valuable, I just haven’t grokked the implications or made the decisions I need to.
  3. blog — did barely any blogging in December. At least I got my health goals update written.
  4. office clean-up — some work, but not as substantial as I needed.

So, yeah. I’ll call that 2/4 overall, but I spent a lot of good time with my family which I needed, so it was a successful month even without the full panoply of completed creative goals.

Three Things for 2018

Obviously the December outcome isn’t going to move the needle on my 2018 goals much, but here is where things stand at the end of the year.

  1. finish A Turquoise Song — my decision to engage a developmental editor meant I could not finish this book in 2018, but I have been working on it consistently over the whole year so I count this as a success even if it is incomplete.
  2. submit my work — a goal in two parts:
    1. submit Song once it is done
    2. complete and submit short stories

    No change from November — my 2018 Boundary Shock Quarterly stories are done, and I did not query Song.

  3. produce Livia as an audiobook — effectively abandoned. I made progress on some of the prerequisites (sorting out recording software, learning a bit about post-processing) but I struggled both with a mangled voice from an extended cold and an impossibly cluttered recording environment.I also realise that I am going to have to work very carefully around the other people in the house. My kids are not especially loud, but teenagers are not inherently quiet beings.

Score for the year, therefore, is 2/3, with the only true failure being the audiobook production.

Three Things for 2019

2019 feels like a watershed year already. Many things are likely to come to a conclusion, if not fruition.

Let’s get specific.

  1. query A Turquoise Song — a goal in three parts:
    1. prepare a fourth draft — incorporate feedback, make the book good. Target is to have this done by the middle of the year.
    2. prepare query letter — obviously the initial targets are the agents I talked to at the conference in 2017, but I also want to prepare for querying other agents.
    3. query — get the book out there. Minimum query count is three.
  2. short stories — I am finding my relationship to short stories becoming much less contentious, even fruitful!
    1. several stories to write for Boundary Shock Quarterly
    2. write and submit four stories to other markets. So that’s one a quarter, and I will mark it as such.
  3. engage with the writing community — this is a nebulous label for a group of related goals that don’t warrant a top level item to themselves.
    1. workshop application — I’m going to apply for an intensive workshop. More on that once it’s in hand.
    2. podcast — one of the things that came out of the inconclusive work on producing Livia as an audiobook was a desire to launch a podcast of some kind. This would be audio-only initially, although I am still searching for a good format.
    3. cons & confs — I need to be getting out there more. I just do.

Nothing here about the Livia audiobook. That’s not to say I won’t do work on it, but it will be a side project instead.

It’s going to be a good year, I think.

Three Things for January

December hangovers, 2019 enthusiasms.

  1. Cinnamon Harmonies — finish this draft. I will need to do some plotting first, but the end of the story is not that far away.
  2. Song fourth draft — process feedback received, develop revision plan.
  3. blog — restore regular blogging service.
  4. workshop application — applications will be open soon, so get ready.

Here’s to a substantial 2019!

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Weights and Measures

I promised a health goals update, so here it is.

The big news is that I got back to Lifetime status at Weight Watchers (or “WW” as they have rebranded themselves). The intention* here is to have members stay no more than two pounds above their goal weight, and not too far below either.

This came a little more quickly than I expected. I was creeping down to my goal weight with my weekly weight loss having dropped to only a pound or so. Then at the end of October, I had a sudden larger loss to two pounds above goal. This put me back within the Lifetime zone. Since then I have been trying to find levels to maintain my weight.

Maintaining is hard.

The first thing I had to do (and the thing that really bombed my weight loss last time) was to stop losing weight. There is a maintenance mode in the app which immediately added some points, then they sent out additional guidance on how to further adjust your points to stabilise. I kind of fish-tailed all over the road as I tried to slam the anchors on with the weight loss, but my weight seems to be close to stable at a few pounds below goal.

I have started buying clothes again.

Q: why did you decide to stop losing weight?

This is a question I have asked myself as well as been asked, and the basic reason is maintainability. I have had long term periods of weight stability at much lower weights than I am carrying now: when I was at Uni I weighed 9st8 for the entire time**, and then when I started work I was stable at 10st7 for about four years. Given that, there is arguably a stone and a half I am leaving on the table for my weight loss now.

But, there are differences. That was thirty years ago, for a start, and when I was working at my first job I was cycling at least an hour a day. While I didn’t exercise regularly at Uni, I also didn’t have money to be extravagant with food. The Uni weight was also when I was naught but skin and bone, so it would be deeply unhealthy to aim for that weight again.

Regardless, where I am now is a maintainable weight and maintainabilty is more important that idealness. And I am already quite bony so I don’t want to lose any more.

The next challenge is to make it through the feast season without putting enormous amounts straight back on again: apparently the average American gains fifteen pounds from Halloween to New Year. For me Halloween was a non-event food-wise and Thanksgiving was manageable so I maintained through it — I have even had scones at the local bakery a couple of times***. The trick, it seems, is to only have one of these treats a day, and not every day either.

We have our Christmas traditions that we are going to follow and which I am going to enjoy: the breakfast coffee cake, the Christmas lasagne, my special whipped cream on pie, and a certain amount of wine. I will partake of those but not to the point of being unable to move, and then I will go for a run on Boxing Day.

It’ll be fine.

I hope you are reaching your goals. I will report back after the holiday food is but a memory.

[*] I say “the intention”, but it is also worth noting that to obtain lifetime status now you have maintain your weight in a +/- two pound window around your goal weight. This is harder than the standard I had to meet before.

[**] somehow I lost another three pounds just before I started work. I don’t actually know how. I also feel like this is the absolute lowest weight I could thrive at.

[***] celebrating NaNoWriMo achievements.

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December Things, 2018

It’s the last month of the year and I feel like I am waking up after the long month of November. What exactly is going on again?

Three Things for November

  1. NaNoWriMo — made the words, if not the entire story yet.
  2. blog — I made some blog posts, admittedly mostly about NaNoWriMo but there were blog posts.
  3. office clean-up — didn’t really do anything here. Ugh.

Still, a firm 2/3.

I never wrote a blog post in November about health goals but I do want to post an update about that so a health-focussed update will be coming. It is good news, though.

The best thing about November was a regular write-in with some local authors. We are going to be continuing that in the new year, which I am quite excited about.

Three Things for 2018

Where am I on my goals as the year draws to a close?

  1. finish A Turquoise Song — I not only decided against querying this in November, but chose to engage a developmental editor to look at the pacing and other issues with the book. Basically, I feel like I need some advice on how to make the book function properly. I am expecting feedback in a little over a week, but once those comments come in I will be working on the fourth draft. I will call it a new draft, because I want to draw a distinction between how far I got on my own and where I went with guidance.
  2. submit my work — a goal in two parts:
    1. submit Song once it is done
    2. complete and submit short stories

    All my Boundary Shock Quarterly stories are done. I will not be querying Song this year.

  3. produce Livia as an audiobook — no new work, and this looks like an abandoned goal unless there is some extraordinary effort in December.

    I have no plans for such an effort.

I have made consistent progress on everything except the audiobook production. I would be happier if more things were actually complete, but having three stories out in the wild is pretty special.

Three Things for December

Finishing up 2018 in fine style, I hope.

  1. Cinnamon Harmonies — I don’t particularly expect to finish this in December, but I do want to keep working on it.
  2. Song fourth draft — I am nervous about the feedback I am going to receive, but I am looking forward to making the book better. This month will probably be more about ensuring that I understand the feedback I receive than necessarily applying all of it.
  3. blog — there are a few posts I have delayed. Catch up on those.
  4. office clean-up — I just need to clean that shit up. Not expecting to set aside an audio are of any type.

Let’s get it done.

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NaNoWriMo: The End

I kind of fell across the finish line on Friday so I spent the weekend just remembering what daylight looked like.

How did it go, in the end?

My final validated word count was 75,392 words. The NaNoWriMo word count validator gave me about 300 more words than Scrivener thought, which is not unusual, but still – I averaged a little over 2.5k a day for the whole of November.

The story isn’t done, though. I’m probably about 25k away from the end of the book, and I will be working to finish that off over the next few weeks — not at the same pace, of course, because that was too all-consuming, but if I write about a thousand words a day I will be done before the end of the year. I am changing ink colour on my maze tracker, though, so as to draw a distinction between November words and December words.

I can’t offer any judgement on how the story actually is. My process is to not read a novel manuscript until several weeks have passed, so even if the story was actually complete now I wouldn’t be reading it until January anyway.

But running this without a formal outline has been a good experience. I feel like the story has gone places it would not have with a more detailed outline. I do know that the story currently suffers from meetingitis, where the characters exchange information by having meetings all the time.

But now it’s back to the word mines for me.

How did your November go?

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NaNoWriMo: Two Thirds Done

There are Novembers where I have struggled to make words. There have been Novembers when I almost failed, abandoning because I didn’t know where the story was going but where it was utterly sucked. There have been Novembers where even two books seemed unambitious; maybe I should try three next year? *

This November is not like any of those. I haven’t had any significant difficulties with keeping on pace for my word count goal. I don’t have a complete outline but I have not struggled with the direction of the story, and having a bit more freedom to let the story go where it wants at the pace that it wants has been rather pleasing. Also, while I don’t necessarily like where the story is going, I also trust that I can take even the most depressing story and find the healthy kernel**. This feels like a big one book year rather than having any urge to write multiple stories.

And so, we find ourselves two thirds of the way through the month. How goes the fight?

For me, my numbers are stacking up like this:

  • Words: 52,027 / 70,000 — I have the official win, and I am well on track for my own goal.
  • Chapters: 24 / 35 (assuming 2,000 word chapters) — word count is at 74% of goal, chapters are at 68%. Some upward drift on chapter length, it seems, but pretty close honestly.

It’s story progression that is worrying me most at the moment. I wrote on Twitter that I thought I was about half way through even with the 50k words, but I think it might be worse than that.

Harmonies is a redraft, and the original version of this part of the story was 18 chapters long. The point of the story I am at now maps to about chapter 7 in the first telling, which is about 39%.

So, I am roughly twice as far through the planned word count as I am through the story: two thirds done with the time, but only one third done with the plot.


Multiplying things out, I can reasonably expect this story to be roughly 70 chapters, about 150,000 words in length.

That is rather more daunting than I expected.

Well. Best get cracking.

[*] no. The answer is: I shouldn’t.

[**] Better is quite an uplifting story… now.

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NaNoWriMo: The Middle

Well, we’re half done with November even if November is not yet done with us.

I had a bigger day yesterday than I expected. My regular write-in was intensely productive, and between that the other hours I managed a little over 5k for the day. I always love it when the words flow so freely! It was an exciting scene too, which always helps.

That big day meant I managed to push through 40k for the month, which is more than half way to my 70k target.

I do need some plot survey, though: I will be writing this evening after the day job is done, and I want to see where I am in the plot I have in mind. I am also starting to stray into the Bits I Haven’t Properly Plotted Yet, so a bit of planning may be necessary to keep the words coming after this weekend. As I recall, the things that went wrong in 2006 (the closest I have come to not finishing NaNoWriMo) were in the third week (although that story had big problems anyway).

Back to the point, though: I have 4/7 of the draft I had planned, but have I gone through 4/7 of the plot?

Even though I haven’t done complete chapter outlines, I know I would usually be planning on about 35 chapters of 2000 words each, so I will use that as a proxy.

Word count: 40k/70k = 57%
Chapters: 18.5/35 = 53%

Well, that’s pretty close: this slight dilation of the chapter length is almost expected by now. I think I am at the central turning point of the story with my emissary awakening, so it looks like things are more or less on track overall. If I run out of November before I run out of plot then I will probably carry on into December a little bit.

How is your writing going?

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November Things, 2018

Running a little late on this because staying on track with NaNoWriMo has been consuming most of a reduced pool of writing time. But, I want to review progress and see where I am.

Three Things for October

  1. revise Song — finished the punch list revisions and completed work on the third pass comments. Out to my crit group now for feedback.
    I’m very pleased to have this draft done.
  2. NaNoWriMo — two things:
    • prep for writing in November — did a good amount of prep but didn’t quite manage the full set of chapter outlines I was aiming for. I definitely had enough to start writing, though.
    • post a series of NaNoPreMo blog posts — done.
  3. setup audio recording area — no work on this. I mean, I did some more office tidying, but no progress on the booth.

That’s 2/3 for anyone’s money.

Again, I did not explicitly mention health goals. Those are at an interesting stage which I will, as usual, talk about in a later post, but in short I am reaching the point of considering how to maintain my positive outcomes. That’s something else I am pleased about.

October, in fact, was a splendid month.

Three Things for 2018

Where am I on my goals as the year draws to a close?

  1. finish A Turquoise Song — draft done. Now I just have to query it.
  2. submit my work — a goal in two parts:
    1. submit Song once it is done
    2. complete and submit short stories

    Song is done so I need to submit that.
    I had an opportunity to refine my third Boundary Shock Quarterly story, which ate a little into other tasks but had a good outcome.

  3. produce Livia as an audiobook — no new work.

I feel like most of these goals are coming home. I am sad about the audio book progress, but I am getting word things done.

Three Things for November

NaNoWriMo is here.

  1. NaNoWriMo — make the words.
  2. blog — don’t forget to do blog things! *
  3. office clean-up — still a mess, still need space for an audio area.

To the word mines!

[*] narrator voice: He totally forgot to do blog things.

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NaNoWriMo 2018: The First Week

We are now a week into November. Writing is well under way.

The first few days of November are always a hasty flurry of words, but it is about now when I start quantity surveying in earnest: the 6th is 20% of the month so I am always looking at what I’ve got to see where I am compared to my goals.

The specific things I usually look at are:

  • chapter count – if I’m aiming for 25 chapters, say, how many have I written? This can expand, I find, if one planned chapter ends up being massively longer or plottier than expected. Those are the amoeba chapters.
  • plot – the chapter outlines I usually do also give me a gauge on where I am in the plot.

This year I am only looking at word count only since my chapter outlines aren’t completely laid out, but I’m at 17k now so I am on track for my goal of 70k.

How are you wordings going?

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NaNoPreMo, part 4: Outline

Feel free to ignore this post.

If you are a confirmed pantser who writes without wires or safety net and produces fine stories despite that, then this post is not for you.

I am not that kind of writer. The one year I did not have an outline all the way to the end of the story was the closest I came to not finishing NaNoWriMo. I need an outline, and the outline structure I use is fairly loose. I still want drafting to be fun.

Types of Outline

Outlines come in all shapes and sizes and levels of detail. A list of chapter subjects is a basic outline, as is a paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of the action, but outlines have the following properties in common:

  • an ordered list of elements forming a narrative
  • the sequence of elements is the way the story is going to be told

So, your story might be performing some structural acrobatics as in Christopher Nolan’s Memento or Iain M Banks’ Use of Weapons, and you might have a full layout of the plot in chronological sequence, but the outline will be in the order the events will be shown to the reader.

Scenes as Use Cases

There are many levels of detail you can work at in an outline, and if you follow something like the Snowflake Method you would start with top level headings and then decompose those into smaller and smaller elements, but I like to work at the scene summary level.

I have a particular format I use for my scene summaries derived from my experience in software: I treat each scene as a use case.

What this means in practice is that for each scene I need the following:

  • who’s in the scene — major characters only. Side characters may be invented as I go and even reoccur, but this captures just the major characters who have a part to play.
  • where the scene starts — “where” means both the location and the emotional state of the narrative.
  • where the scene ends — similarly, this is as much about end state as end location.
  • things that need to happen — there might be particular elements of foreshadowing or character development needed, or just making sure that the MC hets the gun now that they need to use in four scenes, but there are likely to be particular things that have to be in the scene.

And now I need to go and work on my own outline for November.

Good luck in the wars to come.

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NaNoPreMo 2018, part 3: Structure

Once upon a time there was a writer who wanted to break into the romance market. They researched what was in print, looked at what had been printed historically, what was selling at the time, and then wrote something which tried to avoid repeating the tropes of existing stories — they wanted to produce something fresh, something that everyone would be eager to read because it was new.

But no one wanted it because it didn’t fit: in trying to develop something different, they had abandoned the form that the readership was looking for.

The point here is that people love stories that are, to some extent, like the stories they already know. They want a twist, but only a twist, and people have a strong sense of what makes a satisfying narrative and will drop a book which doesn’t pay that off.

This post is not going to be an exhaustive treatise on structure, but I want to talk about two structural components that I have struggled with and continue to work on.

But first…

Why Structure At All?

Every story has a structure. Readers are looking for structure to help them navigate the narrative, to guide them in understanding the events being related.

Even if you set out without a plan, your story will have a structure. It might be a messy and incomprehensible structure, but one will be there.

If you want to write stories that people want to read, then you should think about a structure you want to use and be intentional about what that structure is.

Because (as I know from years of experience) trying to add structure later rarely works well.

Three Acts

The three act structure has been used as a baseline format on television for decades. It’s not the only structure available, but variations on it deliver stories that make sense to readers.

The version of these three acts that I use is:

  1. Act 1
    1. inciting incident — the thing that happens that starts the story.
    2. first attempt to deal — the protagonist tries to make things better, but makes things worse. Or they do something which should fix the problem, but the antagonist is revealed to be doing things that thwart those efforts.
  2. Act 2
    1. protagonist realise that something is up and gathers resources to try again
    2. second attempt to deal — another go at fixing things, another thing which (mostly) fails. This can include a small victory for the protagonist, but overall the protagonist should understand that there is a lot more to be done.
  3. Act 3
    1. darkest hour — the antagonist takes something from the protagonist thinks they can not do without: their mentor, their lover, their shiny new sword. But in their defeat lie the seeds of victory.
    2. final challenge — the protagonist and antagonist face off and the antagonist is defeatad… for now.
    3. denoument — aftermath of the final challenge, where the protagonist has to accept the changes that have happened.

There are lots of variations on this including pinch points, structures with seven acts and so on, but this is a serviceable form which will produce a sufficiently compelling story.

To give a specific example, Livia and the Corpuscles was built around this form.

Point of View

When we talk about points of view (POV), there are two things we could discuss: voice, and multiple characters. They are related but distinct elements.

The voice choice is usually between one of first person, close third person, distant third person, and some variety of omniscient third person.

  • first person — the words are those of the character. Good to make characters sympathetic because self-image tends to be positive, but very difficult for relating events that don’t happen to the character directly.
  • close third person — a narrator is describing the character, but there is direct insight into the character’s thoughts. Focusses on a single character at a time.
  • distant third person — the narrator describes the character but in a more remote way: unlikely to have visibility of the inside of anyone’s head, allows for more broad descriptions, opportunities for dramatic irony, and so on. The focus is on a single character, but can zoom out to describe things which are a little more distant if need be.
  • omniscient — the narrator knows all. This is where head-hopping can pop up, but basically the narrator relates everything that is relevant to the story.

Changing voice is entirely possible, but always fraught. It’s been two years since I changed Song from close third person to first and I still find incorrect pronouns.

Narrative distance from the character dictates things about how the story is told, but another element of POV which has given me trouble over the years is multiple protagonists. I have tripped over two significant issues:

  1. giving each POV character a meaningful narrative arc. POV characters need to learn and grow, or at least change over the course of the story, so it is important for each of the characters telling the overall story to have their own narrative structure. What I do here is to consider each character independently of the overall story and to prepare three act structures for each.

    This has been particularly valuable as an approach with Song. That is in fact a single POV story, but I found that describing the narrative from supporting characters’ point of view helped me to sharpen the narrative when those characters were getting page time.

  2. handing off from character to character. My early work structures multiple POVs as: each character does a complete thing, then jump to the next character. I am telling multiple independent stories, effectively time-slicing between them*.

    Unfortunately, that isn’t compelling story-telling.

    Switching POV characters should be timed to answer a question raised in another POV. The idea is that the other POV might have information that the first doesn’t have, or might learn something that might be useful if only the other one knew…

    This is something I still struggle with. I have successful short stories with multiple POVs, but no functional novels yet.

Final Encouraging Words

Structure is hard, and as a new writer it felt like too much work, but believe me when I say it is much more work to write an elaborate narrative without a structural plan and then have to try and corral the story into something that a reader might want to actually read.

Go forth and struct your stuff!

[*] consolidating narratives per character is how I will try to rescue that story.

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