Friday, 16 October 2020

PREPTOBER, PODCASTS AND PROUDNESS (oh my!)

Hello, lovely Readers! A quick October check-in for you today - or Preptober, actually. 


Yes, you read that right. Following the successful completion of CampNaNo this year, I've decided to defy the NaNoCurse - and perhaps common sense - by giving NaNoWriMo a shot again this year. This will be the third time that I've attempted NaNo proper and both previous times I ended up both hurting myself and getting ill in the first few days of November. But a) third time lucky, maybe? and b) what is life without the spice of risk? And since I've basically had to put the draft of the Most Special Secret Project Ever on hold for the last few months while I was teaching, working on my dissertation, and finishing up other projects, this seems like a really good cue to dive back into it.

I've signed up as a NaNo rebel this year, since I've already got a detailed outline and have drafted out a chunk of chapters/scenes of the MSSPE. For me, Preptober is more about diving back into research (of which there is... a lot. A lot. A. LOT), re-reading the scenes I've already got, and re-familiarising myself with the characters and tone of this story. Which I love so much, you guys. My gizzards are knotted with hope that this one finds a home when it's done.

Now, for Dear Readers who are into podcasts, there's a really fascinating interview here between me and the absolutely lovely Amanda Whittington as part of the RLF Writers Aloud series. We talk in depth about my books, about Feminism and diversity, and about publishing, in addition to a bunch of other random topics. I had so much fun recording this with Amanda, and really enjoyed listening to it again when it went live, so check it out.

Finally, you might have noticed that above I mentioned working on my dissertation - and some of you may already know that I was scheduled to complete my Master's Degree in creative writing this year. This is a huge deal for me because... well, because I'm not from a family where people were expected to go to uni, or get degrees, especially advanced degrees. There's a post about my opinions and experiences with education here for context. Very luckily, considering that this is the Year of Our Lord Cthulhu of Unending Horrors, I had opted to take the course by distance learning, which meant that it wasn't substantially affected by the pandemic as all the work was set and handed in online anyway. 

I handed in my dissertation - which is the final, and most substantial piece of work the course requires - in August, and the (provisional - they're still waiting for review) marks came yesterday. When the email arrived in my inbox I almost couldn't make myself open it because I was so sick with nerves about  the outcome, with all my fears about education not being for 'people like me' flooding back in. But when I did open it, I discovered that I had passed with Distinction. I earned straight As for all my work throughout the degree. I somehow got an 84 on my final essay, which is nearly unbelievable considering that it's only the second degree level essay I have ever written in my life (MA essays are a very far cry from the stuff I scribbled out at GCSE).

I'm equal parts dazed and delighted, and my big ambition now is to keep going and pursue a PhD, if I can win a studentship. Then the next step would be to teach Creative Writing at university level: a previously utterly unattainable dream which now has at least the potential to one day become reality. 

Generally I have a difficult time feeling proud of things I've done myself - this was always seen as arrogance and big-headedness in my family, and the response to good news was generally a request to not go on about it too much. But dammit, I am proud of this. In another month or so, I will officially have a degree and be at least partially qualified for something, even if I probably won't get a graduation ceremony (thanks, Corona). So have a nice dance anthem and let's raise our glasses (there's Ribena in mine) and do a little proudness hip-shimmy in honour of bravery and second chances.

Monday, 7 September 2020

READER QUESTIONS! My Writing Process

Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Monday and happy September - I hope that the week and the month are shaping up to be pleasant for you all. Humanity damn well deserves some form of seasonal hot drink (maple rooibos tea in my case), a nice fluffy jumper, some crisp, golden leaves and a run of sunny, frosty days after the year we've had so far. 

In an attempt to start autumn off right, I bring tidings of great joy for US Dear Readers - a Kindle Countdown deal on The Book of Snow & Silence over on Amazon.com. The book's currently 99 cents (sorry, my UK keyboard doesn't have a cent symbol) and will slowly increase in price over the next week, so it's in your interest to grab it as early as possible if you want it. Don't feel too left out, my UK lovelies - there's a similar deal on British Amazon coming up shortly.

Today's post is in response to reader AS, who left a delightful comment on another post, and asked:

"If it isn't too much trouble, then can you please do a blog post on your writing process? How you research, edit and take final decisions etc? And whether you pen the draft first or type it directly?"

I've talked about this a lot in various posts and interviews, but I'm not sure if I've ever collated all my answers in one place - and I always find glimpses into other authors' processes fascinating - so I decided to make this a new post.

A Disclaimer: This is not The One True Way to Write. There is no one true way. This my own method that I've developed over years of hit-and-miss, trial and error experimentation - it's what works for my particular creativity, with my particular routine, utilising my particular brain circuitry. Feel free to try any or all of the methods I talk about, but also to read with interest and then decide that every single thing I do is completely wrong for you. The only 'Right Way' to write is the way that makes you happy and productive. Ok? Ok.

First up, I am a long-hand drafter. 

It's a habit that I developed from 2001, back when I was working as an extremely underpaid and overworked civil servant, scribbling in my notebook during breaks and on the longish bus journey to and from the office. Frankly, there were days when being able to dip into my imaginary world whenever I had a spare moment was the only reason I managed to keep my grip on reality in this one, and this being before smartphones or tablets (because I am ancient, kids), writing in longhand was my only option. 

In 2010 I became a full-time carer for my father - who relied on me to administer his haemodialysis - and decided to try and speed up my writing process by hauling my laptop with me while I was looking after him, and drafting directly into a Word doc. This was a huge mistake: swiftly capturing all my darting thoughts in the form of scribbles and then transcribing those handwritten scribbles into the screen, editing and rethinking along the way, turned out to be a massive part of my drafting process. Without it, the 'first draft' that I produced was a complete mess, painful to read even for me, and torture to edit. I learned my lesson and have been a hardcore notebook collector ever since.

However, there's a downside to writing by hand for hours everyday, and that downside is Repetitive Strain Injury. In order to combat this, I usually write either with a fountain pen (nothing fancy - I lose them too often for that) or a brush pen, as they don't require a strong grip or much pressure to work. I also utilise the Pomodoro Technique, which basically requires that you work flat-out for short periods of time with no interruptions, then take a short break, then work again. 

I try to do four thirty-minute writing springs in the morning (with a five minute break between to bathe my hands in warm water and gently stretch them, as well as to visit the bathroom, refresh my drink, or chuck a toy for my dog) before breaking to take the dog for his mid-day walk and have some lunch. Then, in the afternoon, I re-read and edit everything I typed up the day before, and finally type up my newest scribbles. This technique can yield between 600-6000 words in a day (my record was 9000 words in a day, but my writing hand swelled up and became intensely painful for weeks afterward, and, as above, I learned my lesson and don't push it anymore) and it effectively means that the completed 'first draft' of my novel is actually more like the third or fourth draft.

I'm also a hardcore researcher. 

Most of my novels have been inspired in one way or another by elements of the real world - a setting/landscape, a culture, a piece of folklore or mythology or history. When I get an idea for a story that really grabs me (generally when several tiny idea fragments that have been floating around in my head for a while suddenly collide and become one Big Idea) I pick out one of my extensive collection of notebooks, something that feels like it would suit the main character to use, and label it with the date and my working title.

Then I start reading. First, I'll use the internet - yes, including Wiki - to figure out how much I don't know, which is usually A LOT. Then I'll start visiting all of the local libraries I can get to in order to borrow or order any and every book relating to my story that I can. These might be books, for instance, on the architecture and art of Edo era Japan, or on the landscape and wildlife of Northern India and Tibet, or every version of the Beauty & the Beast story throughout world history. Once I've munched my way through every book that I can get my hands on for free, I will start ordering the ones I a) feel I can't live without and b) can manage to afford on my budget. I'll also start ordering or streaming any documentaries, drama series, music, films, cooking shows, art history programmes... anything related to my research topic. 

If I can afford it (which is sadly not always the case) this is also the stage where I will arrange a research trip or too, to scout out possible locations and take photos, or visit museums or exhibits.

My aim is to immerse myself so completely that I feel like I'm walking around in a cloud of information 24hrs a day. If possible, I want to be *dreaming* about this stuff. And through it all, I'll be writing ideas and information and key details down in the back of my notebook (starting with the last page and working forwards).

At a certain point, I'll feel this sort of internal 'click' and know that my research has reached critical mass and it's time to start writing. This doesn't mean I stop researching or that I know every detail that I'll need to know; it's more that I know enough to start, and I also know that if I don't start at this point, the fragile framework of the story might begin to collapse under the weight of all the facts and figures. Basically, writing is now the full-time job, not research. Once I start drafting/scribbling, I switch to writing in the *front* of the notebook (like a normal person) but I still make research notes or put down ideas for future scenes in the back. When drafting and research meet in the middle, it's time for a new notebook. On average I go through two to three notebooks, as well as a couple of 'refill' pads of paper per book.

For insight into how I make the choices that will turn my ideas about a story and characters into a coherent plot, you can listen to this podcast over on the RLF website (my section starts at about the 15min mark), or read this three-part blog series from my archive. This is actually the step that I struggle with the most, so it's the thing I've talked about the most extensively. 

I'm generally a linear drafter.  

I start at the beginning of a story - what will be the prologue or first chapter for the reader - and work my way through until I get to The End. That's not to say that I'm never struck by blinding inspiration about a scene that's chapters away, or that I don't write those scenes down. It's just that, once I've written it, it'll stay in scribbled form in the back of my notebook until I've worked my way forward in the story to that point, at which point I'll type it up. So far, at least, I've never felt the need to write a whole book, or even most of it, out of sequence, and then put it all together afterwards. It can take me anywhere between six months and eighteen months (again, so far!) to complete a 'first draft'. 

When it comes to editing, I start by going back to pen and paper. Here's an archive post that basically covers the process - but I'll note here that 'optional extra' I mentioned back then, of completely changing the format of the document before I print it out? Is now one of the most vital steps. It actually makes a massive difference to me, because by the time I've completed that draft I've often been staring at certain parts of it for months on end and I've stopped being able to distinguish between 'head story' (which is what I meant to say) and 'page story' (which is what the words arranged on the page actually convey to a reader). I know where every word, comma and piece of dialogue are *supposed to be* on the page, which means I don't notice what is *really there*, even if there are missing words or I've copied and pasted something random in. By rearranging all those words, commas and formating choices, I make it much easier to come back to the manuscript with a genuinely fresh eye. 

I like to change the portrait format of the document to landscape and then set the text into two columns so that it resembles the page layout that I'll often get from a copy-editor/proofreader. 

Then I amend my line spacing (from double to single) and reset the font (from Times New Roman into something that's sans serif, like Calibri) and the text size (from 12 pt down to 11 pt, uusually). 

Coincidentally, these changes can also potentially save me a chunk of paper in the printing, bringing a 300 page ms down to around 150 (yes, it's that dramatic).

So that's my (current) writing process. And that's also where I'll leave today's post. I hope that it was useful or at least interesting, AS - and anyone else who is reading. Do you have a writing process, or are you still experimenting? Do you have any tips or tricks to share? If so, sound off in the comments, and in the meantime, have a great week, muffins!

Monday, 3 August 2020

WHAT I'VE BEEN READING LATELY

Hello, hello, hello, Dear Readers! Happy Tuesday to all.

First up: THE BOOK OF SNOW & SILENCE is on a Kindle Countdown deal right now and you can snap it up for under £2, but only for today - then the price increases by £1 (although that's still £1 off the normal price). So if you're interested in owning it, now is the time to snap it up.

Today I bring you a veritable blizzard of reviews, all of books I've read pretty recently. I was on a major fiction-reading slump while working on my dissertation - mainly because I spent all my time devouring academic books to try and prove that the point I'm arguing in my essay isn't utterly bonkers - but now that it's finished and I'm nearly ready to hand in, I've gone... a bit book-mad. I just had a lot of novels queued up on my ereader, and once I started, I couldn't stop!

Some of these reviews are looong. Some are short and sweet. There's no way I can copy and paste all of them here in full, so I'm just going to list the books with a one sentence summming up, and a link to the full thing over on Goodreads. These are presented to you in reading order, not order of preference, and I'm only sharing reviews for standalone books.

A Warning: I do not hold back on expressing my feelings, here! If I inadvertantly trashed your favourite book, I apologise for any hurt feelings - but just know that however negative my review may seem, I myself have been the recipient of ones ten times worse, and survived. Also, although I may refer to the authors, I will always focus on the book or character's traits, not the writers' (presumed) ones.

Onward!


The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. Finished: the 28th of June. My Summary: gorgeous but incoherent and ultimately unsuccessful. Full review.


Angel Mage by Garth Nix. Finished: the 4th of July. My Summary: Enjoyable mash-up of fun elements that left me feeling somewhat let down by the close. Full review.


The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Finished: the 13th of July. My Summary: an intriguing take on the well-worn Groundhog Day trope which has a lukewarm start, a bubbling-hot middle, and then goes off the boil at the end. Full review.


The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson. Finished: July the 30th. My Summary: I went in looking for a whimsical, life-affirming, bibliophile-friendly tale, but I got uninteresting family drama and a heroine so miserable and dense that it was a struggle to finish. Full Review.


Sorcery of Thorns by Margeret Rogerson. Finished: July the 29th. My Summary: Fast-paced, thrilling fantasy which is vaguely reciminiscent of my favourite bits of LIRAEL by Garth Nix and has an ending which is Just Right. Full Review.


The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller. Finished: July the 31st. My Summary: A brilliant premise sadly wasted because the characters are unbearably shallow and boring. Full review.


Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust. Finished: August the 1st. My Summary: A twisty fantasy which offers Persian inspired mythology and worldbuilding and characters that absolutely scintillate with inner life. Full Review.

Let me know if you've read any of these (or plan to) and what you thought in the comments, Muffins!

Monday, 27 July 2020

CAMP NaNoWriMo 2020 - I WON!


Kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it? Whooop!

Yes, I managed to get the most super special secret project ever (should I start just calling this TMSSSPE? Or maybe come up with a codename?) to 30,000 on Monday last week, which completed the challenge I set myself for Camp NaNo this year.

Honestly, it was a massive relief, and I nearly cried with the sheer release of anxiety over getting there. Trying to work on the WIP from 9:30 to 13:30 every day AND rewrite my thesis proposal AND edit my dissertation essay AND read and offer detailed feedback on the work of twenty-four students every week AND find time to, you know, adult (walk my dog adequately, exercise every day, eat something approaching healthy food and prevent my house from turning into a black hole inhabited only by person-sized sentient dust bunnies, warring clans of silverfish and a slowly decaying TBR pile the size of a Welsh mountain) was starting to make me go a bit frazzled. And sure, I could have given up, but having managed an unbroken streak of 20 days of writing made my competitive streak burn to life and I just couldn't make myself do it.

If you're thinking that it may have been a bit overly ambitious to decide to do Camp NaNo during what is apparently already an incredibly busy period - yes, you are right. But on the other hand, it accomplished what NaNo is intended to accomplish, which was getting me to that target. And I knew without some kind of motivation, even if only my own competitive streak, TMSSSPE (codename: Times Pee? That definitely doesn't work, does it?) would almost certainly have stalled completely in July, which I didn't want.

So I'm not mad. I might even try Camp NaNo again next year, provided I have slightly more breathing room in July 2021.

(Please do not cause me to be cursed in some inventive fashion, discover I am really a troll princess in the middle of a troll civil war, or send a flying house to crush me during July next year, universe - it would not be funny, just mean. Thank you very much)

I'll be popping the WIP on the back-burner for a couple of weeks to give myself space for everything else. I don't really want to: I'm still loving it. But it's the only thing that doesn't have any deadlines or contractual obligations attached to it just now. And I'm still researching and scribbling down notes as they occur to me.

Are you still pressing your noses to the NaNo grindstone - or other grindstone - muffins? And do you have any suggestions for a codename for TMSSSPE? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, 23 July 2020

WRITERS ALOUD - THE NORTH STAR

Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Thursday to you all - I hope the week is going well for you so far.


This week I have a podcast for you from the Royal Literary Fund's Writers Aloud series! I absolutely loved writing and voicing this (and especially working with lovely Amanda, who recorded it) and I think it turned out really well. We actually recorded it a quite a while ago and I've been waiting for ages for it to be ready, so please do check it out.

The first part is by a writer called Marcy Kahan and talks about how she fell into playwriting manuals (which might be of interest to any Dear Readers who are into screen or plawriting). The second half is mine, and I talk about how characters are central to creating a fully realised fantasy world - like a Northern Star by which I navigate.

My section of the podcast starts at roughly 15.15, if you want to go there directly, but do try Marcy's part as well if the topic's appealing to you.

I hope you enjoy the podcast - and that you can find a Northern Star by which to navigate the journey to Friday, muffins 😊

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

CAMP NANOWRIMO 2020 - THE NANO CURSE STRIKES AGAIN!

I was honestly doing so well, Dear Readers. And then... the Nano Curse. For once it didn't attack me ( a refreshing change). No, it killed my computer for a whole day. A whole day. For just... no reason.

I still did longhand writing, but I couldn't input it, AND I couldn't get any other work done, so on Monday I was totally snowed under, and all I could do was type up my longhand notes and then (in fairness) divide the word total between Sunday and Monday.

This is how I was doing before:


And this is what it looks like now:


Eugh, that drop. Speaks for itself, really. *Sigh*

EDITED TO ADD: And, now, having spent the morning revising the first half of the sections that I typed up yesterday, I go to what should be the start of a new chapter and find... no new chapter. All the work I did after about 1pm yesterday is gone. Even though I KNOW I saved it. So. I don't even know. Nano Curse, you are a cunning and evil gremlin indeed.

I should have known. But I'm going to keep ploughing on anyway, because a) I've made hella progress overall and b) I love Camp NaNo's progress interface and you can only use it during July (or April) so why not? Let's hope the Curse doesn't take my fingers out next time.

How are you doing? Sound off in the comments, muffins!

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

CAMP NaNoWriMo 2020!

Hello, hello, hello Dear Readers! Happy Tuesday to all. I hope your weeks are looking positive so far and you're all safe and well.

So here's a question. Are you doing Camp NaNoWriMo this month? 'Cos I'm going Camp NaNoWriMo this month.


I know, I know, the NaNo Curse. It's true, as long-time Dear Readers know, that I've never managed to complete the OG NaNoWriMo successfully because every. Single. Time - every time, going all the way back to 2011! - either before I can start or within days of starting... something really awful happens to me. Sometimes it's horrendous illness or hideous injury. Sometimes it's even worse. After the last time I just gave up, honestly.

BUT. This is Camp NaNoWriMo, which is technically something different, right? It's July, not November. You can set your own word count and even work on edits if you want, without 'cheating'. It's got a different logo and everything!

And, just between you and me, I need the help. I've got a really special WIP right now that is truly and utterly different to anything I've ever worked on before, and I LOVE it. I desperately want to get it finished by the end of this year. But between researching and writing the dissertation for my MA, designing modules for and preparing to teach two writing courses on Creative Writing Ink from this week, and launching The Book of Snow & Silence (in addition to the world, you know, being AN ACTUAL TRASH FIRE) I've been choked on it for months. I haven't made any real progress since January. I just kept opening the file up, fiddling with a few lines, and then getting vapour-locked.

So: Camp NaNo. I decided to give myself a really small and manageable goal, not only to ease myself past my writing roadblock on this one, but because I know that the teaching is going to take up a big chunk of time going forward. I can't see myself writing anything good if I'm panicking over finding time for that AND hitting 3000 words a day.

I started July the 1st, and I'm pleased to say that not only did I not get a horrendous injury/hideous illness, or suffer a personal tragedy, but I actually managed to write some new stuff for the first time in months:


And that I've managed to keep it up and make steadily increasing progress:


It's good enough for me. I know that when the teaching starts, my daily word count might sag down again, but that's OK - so long as I can manage to get to my overall target by the end, I'll count this a massive success. Hurray!

You can start Camp NaNo anytime during the month, and (as I said above) set your own overall word goal - so if you've been struggling to get something started or wade out of the middle muddle, now might be the time to give it a shot. Or maybe you're already up and writing. In either case, feel free to add me as a buddy if you want.

Oh, and here's a new writing playlist I made, although it's super project specific and very heavy on the Enya, so if you're not into that, maybe give it a miss.

Happy writing, muffins!
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