I’m still here

Okay. so it’s been a while since the last post. Sorry about that. I kind of ran out of things to say for a while. That’s another way of saying life happened and Just Add Story lost some priority.

But I haven’t abandoned this blog. I’m still trying to write and still want to become published.

It’s a long road.

There will be more posts. Soon, even.

 

 

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Scrivener is too heavy

I’ve decided to put Scrivener aside for now and write in a basic word-processor.

Now before I get lynched by writers who swear by it, I should, of course, explain why I’m setting it aside for now. There are several issues. And the biggest problem is the hardest to describe. It has never felt like a comfortable app to use, for me. I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something about that isn’t quite right to me. It is as though I’m always trying to scale the learning curve instead of happily using it at some plateau.

Perhaps it is because I use the Linux version. The Linux version has had a rough start. The current versions are pretty good now, but for quite a while it struggled a bit with some Linux-isms that Windows didn’t have and OS X didn’t have. Things like correct library versions and filename and path handling that was just a little different (it probably didn’t help that Linux filesystems are completely case correct, unlike both Windows and Mac – this means you can have a file called “file.x” and one called “File.x” in Linux; Windows doesn’t like that and OS X will tolerate it but will do unexpected things sometimes).

Another way of looking at this was that I couldn’t really get into the same UI mindset as the designers. I don’t have a problem doing this with LibreOffice. This might be because it was originally an OS X app. I recently switched to OS X at work and there are a few things that bug me about OS X that I know Apple has no intention of changing, even if they could understand why I don’t like them.

This might also be related to the fact that I struggled to embrace Scrivener’s workflow. Scrivener makes it so easy to switch between scenes often when writing. However, that is quite disruptive and I shouldn’t do it. It is harder in a word-processor, but it doesn’t feel so disruptive.

The last problem is trying to manage my writing on multiple devices. You’d think I could access a Scrivener project on my flash drive just as comfortably in OS X as in Linux. However, it always feels fragile. It also leaves out my Android tablet.

So, I’m going back to writing in a word processor. I know word processors. I’ve used LibreOffice since it was called StarOffice. I’m more comfortable in it.

 

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Every experience is a learning experience

One of the oft-repeated pieces of advice for aspiring writers is “write what you know”. There have been multiple arguments about quite what that means. Does it mean you can’t write about life on a farm if you’re only ever lived in a city apartment? Does it mean you can’t write about spycraft if you aren’t trained for it? Does it mean a white middle-aged man can’t write from a black girl’s perspective?

Writers are always doing research. Not just formal research – deep in the reference sections of large libraries, or down the back of specialised book stores, or finding and buying obscure works off the ‘net – but also informal research. Watching people around them. Listening to stories and paying attention to their own experiences.

I got threatened with assault on the train yesterday afternoon. I know I don’t have any combat training and I rather doubt the pimply adolescent with more arrogance than sense did either. It was an intense experience corralling my reactions under the wash of adrenaline. There is a reason it’s called the “fight-or-flight response” because that’s the two options your body presents. It is calling for basic animal reactions. It is a difficult time for rational thought. Without any sort of training in the arts of hand-to-hand fighting, it was all I could do to not physically attack back and to go for diversions instead.

What did I learn out of this?  The immediate learning is that an untrained defender will not behave coherently. It is incredibly difficult to respond rather than react. This is why those who are expected to go into such a situation are trained so heavily. They need an instinctive response in that situation and that’s what training provides. Perfect information for writing a warrior in fiction. Especially one who is yet to undergo the necessary training.

I got out of this unharmed, of course. First step was to flee to the next carriage, then I called upon the train guard, who (to my considerable surprise) gave me a seat in his cabin to let me recover in a safe space. Because recovery is also needed from an intense adrenaline burst. This is also good information for writing. Once the emergency is over, your body pays the price: there is weariness, emotional vulnerability and in extreme cases even nausea as everything goes back to normal. I kind of suspect having a safe place and someone watching gives a reference point for ‘normal’ to aim for.

This is definitely not an experience I would normally want, let alone would want to repeat. And, sadly, it made me a bit more wary of which carriage I boarded on the journey home later that night. But I am aware of my own reactions enough to be able to learn from it. This is what makes me a writer.

 

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Starts and Finishes

There are many lessons a writer must learn. How to create distinct characters. How to craft a narrative. How to throw away words. Where to start and where not to to. And when to finish.

To mutilate a sentiment that is often spoken to new writers, a story needs to be finished before it can be published. Or should be submitted. And figuring out how to wrap a multitude of story threads into a conclusion, satisfying or not, is a pleasant experience.

On the other hand, pick another project you might have started over the years. How many have you finished? I mean really? Still got boxes not-unpacked even though you’ve lived there for five years? Or that cross-stitch someone convinced you would be fun? How’s the garden? Full of plants thriving? Or is it mostly weeds? I could go on. That’s not to say that writing fiction is only ever going to be a fad for most people.

Maybe a closer example is song-writing. This is as tough as writing a story. I know this because I’ve tried it. I’ve heard from well-known song-writers that for every song they finish, there are easily ten they don’t. Ten songs unfinished! How does that stack up on your story-writing? Ten ideas or story starts for each one that went to completion?

It rather puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

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Tell a story.

I’m attempting NaNoWriMo again this year, although in a slightly informal way as words have already been written in that story. I’ve already mentioned this. I’ve also been involved enough with others doing NaNoWriMo and others who write closer to fulltime than me to see that there are many different approaches to penning a story.

This is not a surprise to me. Not anymore.

But taking it a step further and activities and exercises that one NaNoWriMo regional group provide (and encourage participation in) simply cannot work the same for everyone. It is easy for those running the same group year after year to get in ruts with familiar tools that seem to work. It is less easy to look around and find other tools and activities that might help more aspiring writers.

I did a new one the other week. We were given a word or brief thought every 20 minutes or so and asked to respond as our main character. I know my main character fairly well at this point. Or rather, I know parts of him fairly well. But this exercise reminded me that my MC is on a journey. The whole novel is to show this journey from fleeing farmboy to leader of a powerful insurgency. I’ve had this goal for months. This is the story I want to tell.

There is a reason this blog is called “Just Add Story”. World-building cannot produce a novel. Interesting characters cannot produce a novel. Dialogue cannot produce a novel. All of these are necessary to write a novel-sized work, but the one thing a novel always needs is a story. ‘This happens, then this happens, and them because of that, this happens.’

Simplistic? Perhaps. Simplistic can sometimes get your attention when complex does not.

Write a story. Let your characters change and be changed. Find the journey you want to take your readers on.

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The Edges Of World-Building: Water.

Aqueduct of Pegões, Tomar, Portugal

Aqueduct of Pegões, Tomar, Portugal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Most, if not all of my readers will be accustomed to having clean running water readily available to them. Kitchen, laundry, bathroom, garden – the supply of water in developed countries (especially urban and suburban areas) is almost universal.

But it wasn’t always like that.

This loose series of blog posts has, admittedly, a bit of a focus on fantasy world-building, as that’s my preference. And a lot of fantasy fiction has the European middle ages as its basis. And during that time and for quite a long time afterward, clean drinking water was not a sure thing. Whilst it made sense for a single town to pull water out of the river on the upriver side and put their sewage in the downstream side, what about the next town down the river? And the next?

When the colony of Sydney was founded, we had this kind of problem. There was a nice clean stream flowing down into the harbour that was quickly overrused. People were trying to pull water out of it right next to where others were putting waste into it. Within a few decades, the first of a series of increasingly large engineering efforts to secure clean water for the burgeoning colony were begun. The Tank Stream now runs in a tunnel underneath the heart of the CBD and most of Sydney’s clean water comes from an large dam some fifty miles or more to the west.

But this isn’t a feat of industrialised society. The Romans were widely lauded for their aqueducts capable of transporting clean water many miles to their cities. Rome alone had more than half-a-dozen aqueducts delivering water to the city. Importantly, the Romans had programs for maintenance and repair and prided themselves on their public baths. Yes, public baths. Household plumbing was likely beyond the Roman’s ability, and possibly beyond what they could imagine. But their whole society viewed personal cleanliness and privacy quite differently to our current western secular society.

Of course, in an invented world, you can create as much or as little of this as you wish. Quite how your fantasy world gets its water to those who need it isn’t necessary to describe or even design in detail. However, you probably should be aware of it. A city of two millions souls with huge public fountains and baths would work situated in a fertile landscape within a hundred miles of snow-capped mountains. The same city would ring false situated on a desert coast with no river in sight. Unless you had designed some magical source of water (it has happened).

Likewise, how water is made available to your world’s characters can drive the story. Public baths can be could for cladestine meetings and illicit hookups in ways that could be quite different in today’s world. The frequency of bathing could be a plot point. Amongst other things, it has an effect on how often they change their clothes. Or wash them.

Or cook. The cottages of Lancre in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, if they have an indoor pump will have it in the scullery. This contributes directly to the house design: the washing is done in one room, but the cooking is done in another. This is world-building in the small.

Where your water comes from has a subtle and powerful influence on how a world works. And I’ve barely touched the subject.

 

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NaNoWriMo Is Coming! (again)

Line art representation of a Quill

A writer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you want to get the novel you know lurking inside you out onto the page? Feel like doing it within just 30 days? Great! Welcome to National Novel Writing Month! Well, actually, NaNoWriMo, as it is known for short, is November and it’s international, not just the USA. And with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world participating, it is definitely on the radar at many publishers. Just don’t sent them your first draft.

Amongst other things, NaNoWriMo has possibly popularised the term panster. This refers to ‘writing by the seat of your pants’ – kind of a no-belt, no-braces, no-safety-harness approach to writing. The opposite is a planner, which is what most writing courses teach. Many many writers attempting NaNoWriMo start with just an idea in their head and then spend a month spewing out undirected fiction, creating characters, scenery and story as they go. And over the course of the month, the NaNoWriMo forums acquire more and more posts from writers who discover their characters going off in unexpected directions. And towards the end of November there is a shift to writers who start discovering their finished work is really quite crap.

However, one of the really good things about NaNoWriMo is that for a lot of people it shows them that they can create fiction. There is a kind of “unstopping the blockage” that happens when you want to write fifty thousand words in thirty days. That’s nearly seventeen hundred a day and for many people, that is somewhere between one and two hours of writing. Each day. Newcomers who used to struggle to write five hundred often develop their skills needed for ten or a hundred times that through sheer practice. And it is only through practice that it happens. It is quite simply true that the more you write, the more you can write. A thousand words used to feel like an awful lot to me. Now it doesn’t. Not for a story. It can be easy to underestimate the value of this.

Still, one of the recurring criticisms of NaNoWriMo is that it doesn’t encourage writers to plan. That’s not the same as discouraging them from planning. It’s just that the program is focussed around writing and provides little or no support for designing the shape of a novel beforehand. (There is also little support for editing, which can range from fixing typos, tense and terminology, to wholesale re-writing of 99% of the work. But that’s a separate problem.)

And planning does have to be done beforehand to some extent. I know of an author who plans his NaNoWriMo novels over a couple of months from around August. He goes as far as chapter and scene breakdowns and big charts about what is intended to happen. When he reaches November 1, it is  a fairly straightforward matter to turn all this structure into fiction, often to the 85,000 word mark. He has written and self-published five novels this way.

So what I’m trying to say is that if you think you want to have a serious go at writing a novel in the month of November, you should already be halfway through your planning!

I’m not kidding.

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