Friday, 30 October 2015

State of the Tonks Address

I was musing earlier about how much I'd written this month. I had a vague inkling that it was one of my more prolific months writing wise (now that the dreaded thesis is out of the way—hurrah! Just the dreaded viva left) but I didn't really understand how prolific until I looked at the numbers.

With a day and a bit left to go I'm on track to have written 15,000 words during October, making it a pretty good month overall. Not my best this year, but pretty good.

Except, for possibly the first time in my life, the vast majority of those words have been for original fiction, quite a lot of which has been inflicted on an unsuspecting public. I'm quite proud of my output for this month wanted to take a moment to brag a little and point you in the direction of any stories that might have slipped under your radar.

October started off slow on the writing front. Mostly due to the fact I was on a cruise for the first nine days of it, but also partly because I was basking in the glory of having (finally!) submitted my thesis. When you've been working on a document for over a year it feels good when it's finally done. A little weird, but good. Nevertheless I managed to write a few words while ostensibly on holiday, but the real work started when I got back.

Since October 10th I have written three stories for the weekly whimword flash fiction competition. The prompts were Glow, Featureless and Hallow. I'm proud of all three pieces, but especially Glow, which was declared the winner that week!

In addition to this I cooked up 750 words of horror for a competition; results still pending on that one. When the results are announced I'll decide what I'm going to do with both the pieces I entered (one was written months ago) that is assuming I don't win, in which case they’ll be published elsewhere. Exciting.

Over on twitter the inestimable @FrogCroakley set up a SF story swap which has had a great response. Somewhere in the region of 60 of us threw prompts into the pot and the majority of us completed the task, resulting in something of a headache for Mr Frog. My piece is a slightly whimsical ode to some of my favourite childhood films and can be found over here.

I also sent in a bizarre spoken word piece (yes, spoken word; I know, with this voice) to the inaugural Lies Dreaming podcast. It's an eldritch tale involving Tim Henman and I'll no doubt post here when it's release to the world. Assuming they don't decide either the content or my voice are unsuitable for the general public.

I also wrote a triptych of flash pieces that I’m quite proud of, though I've yet to work out quite what I'm doing with them. They're a little to close to real life to be sci fi I'm not sure what else to call it. My big achievement though was the 4k words I wrote on a story I started way back in June or something like that, finally getting that done. That too was supposed to be a flash piece and is now sat at 6.5k words. Oh well, never mind; sometimes things get away from you. I'll be looking for a home for that in the near future too.

I went into this month wanting to be relatively prolific as a bit of a warm up for next month in which I will be attempting NaNoWriMo. This will be my first year but after two successful Camp NaNos under my belt I decided it was time. Next month I will be attempting a complete redraft of a novel I first wrote about 8 years ago. The original was a hell of an achievement at the time but I've improved a lot in the intervening years and it isn't really salvageable in its current state. So I will be starting again from scratch and looking to hit 50,000 words by the end of November.

With a bit of luck (and a lot of discipline) I'll be blogging here every day, recording my experience of NaNoWriMo. Possibly so that when I'm considering doing it again next year I have evidence of it being a terrible idea. Almost everything else is being put on hold for NaNo. I might do a whimword or two, but there are no guarantees.

And I still have a viva to sit next month too.

I keep pointing out that I'm not a sensible person.

After November? Well I'm crossing my fingers that my viva goes well and I'll be doing thesis corrections to submit before Christmas. Then it'll be time to look for a proper grown up job.

Writing wise my post November plans are to start sending stories out for publication, and finish my current works in progress. I have some exciting (and no doubt foolish) plans for next year and I want to draw a line under this year's efforts.

Keep your eyes peeled for more from me. My PhD is almost over but my writing career is just beginning. Just wait and see.

#whimword - Hallow

The night air is chill and smells of grave earth. It is autumn and the trees are all but bare. Even though I'm not affected by the cold I instinctively pull my cloak closer about me; long memory forces me into habits I no longer need. The moon rises too slowly for my tastes and I must wait, though I am increasingly impatient as the time drawers nearer.

Soon we will be together again my love.

Every moment we are apart tears at me like a knife, but there is nothing I can do but wait. I should not love you, lord knows I don't deserve to, but so help me I do.

I cannot enter the cemetery; hallowed ground is forbidden to the undead such as myself. All I can do is loiter by the entrance and hope that the magic holds for one more year; that come midnight on All Hallow's Eve the spell will be complete and we will have a few brief hours of bliss.

My stomach growls and I do my best to ignore its pangs. I haven't fed for days. Long experience has taught me that my nerves cannot handle a full stomach come Halloween and that there is nothing romantic about regurgitating blood. I ignore the scent of nearby mortals and the way my hunting instinct kicks in. Tonight I have more pressing business to attend to.

The clock of the nearby church chimes twelve and I hold my breath in excitement, though technically I do not need to breathe at all. As the last ring of the bell fades away I notice that the air feels different; she is coming.

From my vantage point I have a clear view as the spectre of my beloved rises from her grave. If my heart still beat it would have stopped at the sight of her. I wish I could be beside her as she rises but alas, she must come to me.

"Greetings, Sebastian. You're looking well," she says with a smile.

I take her ghostly hand and press it's to my cold, blue lips. "And you, my beloved Felicity are a sight for sore eyes. You're as beautiful as the day I met you."

I mean it too. Her hair was greyer and her skin more wrinkled the day she died than when we met, but that is the price that must be paid when the undead falls in love with a mortal. Circumventing death was trickier but I managed to negotiate a compromise.

We only have a few hours until dawn so we make the most of them. One night a year when the veil between worlds is thinnest is far from ideal, but we've managed for over a century.

When I think of the alternative, never seeing her again, I shudder. Our brief time together isn't much, but it's enough. This was the only way we could be together forever, so we endure.

Our love for each other keeps us going.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

#whimword - Featureless

The view from the bunker is the same as it has been for the past ninety six days; endless plains of grey dust indistinguishable from one another. Some days the monotony of the featureless landscape is broken up by a good dust storm, but all that really accomplishes is smudging the grey up into the darkness of the atmosphere.

There's nothing on this moon, just this horrible gritty dust that gets everywhere, no matter how many showers you take. Corporal Eva Rawson doesn't know why the brass even bothered putting an outpost on this deity-forsaken rock.

What she does know is that they're almost a week overdue in relieving her.

Alone in a remote outpost with no one to talk to and nothing to do but monitor machines that are largely self-sufficient, it's easy to come up with reasons that no one has come for her. It doesn't take her long to envision a scenario in which the entire Sol Republic has fallen and she's the only one left. Her imaginings leave her jittery and anxious and Eva has to have a lie down to calm herself. She doesn't know anything. Not for sure.

There's a reason ninety days is supposed to be the maximum for a tour of duty like this. "Stir crazy" isn't the official diagnosis, but it's what the grunts call it and it can be deadly.

Eva Rawson is definitely stir crazy by this point. She knows the hallucinations aren't far off if someone doesn't come pick her up soon but there's not a lot she can do. Communication with this base is only possible within this planetary system and she's right on the edge of hostile territory; no one's coming this way unless they know she's here.

She's on her own.

The bunker has enough supplies to keep her alive for a year, more if she goes into stasis. That's meant to be a last resort, for emergencies only. The Corps being late in rotating her out isn't technically an emergency so she holds off for now.

By day 108 it's clear that no one's coming. She doesn't know what’s happened to the Corps or the Republic but she assumes it isn't good. By this point the creeping paranoia has started; she's talking to herself and jumping at every little creak she hears. Her own shadow is a threat as far as her brain is concerned.

She holds off on going into stasis, for now, hoping against hope that someone is coming.

By day 120 the line between fantasy and reality is well and truly blurred. Eva is still eating ration bars and drinking her own recycled piss but all hope has gone. Her service pistol is starting to look like a more enticing option than this. She knows its time. Eva puts everything into standby and sets up the pod.

As the coolant seeps into her bloodstream she hopes that she'll get to wake up and find out what happened. There's no guarantee though.


#whimword is an informal flashfic competition run by @whimword on twitter.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

The CaptainRaz Patented Guide to Writing More with Less Stress

A friend of mine was having a tough time with his writing and I offered to send him some advice, which he accepted. I've posted what I sent him here because it might be useful for others as well. And if nothing else it'll serve as a reminder to practice what I preach.

General advice: read Dean Wesley Smith's blog. Dude talks a lot of sense about how to write prolifically and how to have a sustainable career in writing. He may not have won a whole bunch of awards for his work, but he has been making a living from his writing for 40 years, both traditionally published and indie published. A lot of what I've been working on myself has come from his advice.

1) Carve out time to write.

How you do this is up to you and what works best for you. Do you work best with a set daily word count to aim for or will it be better to set aside an hour a day as writing time? Whichever works best for you, you need to get your butt in the writing chair on the regular. Preferably every day. Treat this time as sacred. Writing time is important time. Bite the heels of anyone who tries to disturb you during this time.

2) Don’t worry about creating capital a Art in your writing time.

The time you carve out for writing is important; what you write in your allotted time is not. Sometimes the pressure of creating something perfect is what makes us not create at all. Blank pages are terrifying when you sit down to create art. Work on changing your mindset; try to tell yourself you're not here to create an award winning piece of writing, you're here to have fun. Write what YOU want in your writing time. Don’t worry about awards or sales or edits or any of that. Just focus on having fun when you write. If it's not fun to sit down and write, why are you doing it?

3) Minimise distractions.

Distractions are the enemy, you must kill them with fire. Life throws a million and one things at us that we need to worry about: mortgages, the pile of dishes in the sink, sorting out doctor's appointments, feeding the cat and keeping track of who's winning whichever reality TV show is on at the moment. Worry about this outside your writing time. Writing time is for writing. I find it easier to concentrate on writing as my sole task if I stick some headphones and listen to music. There's a few things I listen to while writing but it is usually either really familiar so I don't have to concentrate on it or instrumental. Sometimes both. Isolating yourself with non-distracting music can really help and I do recommend headphones rather than speakers. In addition, I tend to write in minimalistic writing programs that lack all the whistles and bells of Word or its alternatives. My current favourite is FocusWriter (which is free) and allows near complete customisation. I tend to set it with a black background and green writing (like an old command line computer) and hide any spelling mistakes I make. Turn off the internet and hit full screen and write.

4) Writing sprints are your friend.

I have come to absolutely adore writing sprints. If I'm struggling to make myself sit down and write, a quick words sprint usually gets me going. The basic principle is this: set yourself a timer for 10, 20 or 30 minutes and write as much as you can in that time. Do not stop. Do not pass go. Do not go back to edit or spell check or any of that nonsense. Just keep putting one word after the other until the timer goes. THEN you can correct your horrible typos (which is sometimes hilarious) and inability to spell "field" despite having learned it age 6. You can go back and put in all the words you forgot existed (I did a sprint yesterday where I forgot the word "interim" so I typed in "interthingy", kept going and check afterwards). Momentum is they key with this. I didn't know until I tried sprinting that I can get down 1500-2000 words an hour when I get going. I try to stick to the lower end of that range for quality's sake, but 1500 words an hour is not to be sniffed at. That's how you start a career. Currently I like to use WriteOrDie for sprinting (which shouts at you if your keyboard is idle too long) but a kitchen timer and your writing program of choice work just as well. Word sprints are literally the only kind of sprinting I'm good at.

5) Track what you write.

I used to hate tracking how much I'd written on a particular day, but now I swear by it. Somewhere along the way I became the kind of person who loves spreadsheets for everything and everything, but especially for writing. Setting yourself a goal of 500 words a day? Then you need to know how often you're hitting that, how many days a week you’re missing, when you're exceeding that and what day's you work best on. Plus I find it really useful to try to keep streaks going. Earlier this week I managed five days in a row writing before missing a day due to illness. Still mad at myself for breaking the streak. A little bit of competition with yourself can be good, but don't beat yourself up too much if you miss a target. Pick yourself up and keep going. And track monthly totals. Hitting 15000 words in a month feels pretty good if you've been struggling.

6) Stop over editing.

I wanted to call this step "stop fucking around with your stories" but I felt that swearing in a header might be bad. I try to follow Heinlein's rule on this one that says "only rewrite to editorial order". I have a few people whose opinions I trust and I will make edits according to what they say but otherwise I try to leave my writing alone. It's easy to fall into the trap of editing something to death and never sending it out into the big wide world. It’s safer. Less chance of rejection. But at some point (especially if you ever want to make money from writing) you've got to trust that you know how to tell good story; you've got to let a piece stand on its own two feet and let go. It's hard at first, but you've got stop sabotaging yourself in the edit. Minimise editing and rewriting (especially for shorter pieces) and get them out there. Write better for the next one. Stop fucking around with it and get it out there.

7) Never stop learning.

If you think you know everything there is to know about writing then you're done. It’s over. Even your very favourite authors don't know everything there is to know about writing. Always try to be learning. Whether that's getting better with grammar and punctuation (how the fuck do semi-colons work anyway) or learning about the business side of things or working on better, more rounded characters, always strive for the next level. Try new things. Learn how stories work in different genre to your usual. Always be learning something.

8) Finish. Your. Shit.

OK, so I changed my mind about swearing in headings. This one is important though. Having a hundred half finished drafts is no fucking good to anyone, least of all you. This is the step I'm really working on myself, so I know how hard it can be sometimes. Soggy middles are soggy. new ideas are so shiny sometimes. I find I work best with a couple of things on the go at once, but once I have more than four works-in-progress I know I have to sit down and finish shit up. A crappy but finished story is better than something half done with sparkling prose. FINISH. YOUR. STORIES.

9) Deadlines are not your enemy.

This one helps with number 8. Bogged down with a particular story? Set yourself a deadline to finish it by. Maybe you'll be a few days late, but that doesn’t really matter. You sat your ass down and got shit done, and I'm willing to bet you finished it quicker than if you'd left the due date as something nebulous far in the future. I currently have self-imposed deadlines to try finish my WIPs before I attempt NaNoWriMo. Because the last thing I need when trying to write a novel in a month is other stories hanging over my head. Try it. Set yourself deadlines; try to stick to them.

10) Self care is important.

Be gentle and don’t push yourself too much. Take care of mental and physical health. IF you can't make yourself write today that's okay. If you can get something out when you're not at your best: GREAT! If you can't: don't worry, try again tomorrow. And don't expect too much when you're getting back on the writing wagon after a while off. It's not realistic to go from writing 0 words a day to 3000 words a day with no warm up. That’s a recipe for burnout. Always look after yourself first and the writing second.

Ten steps to try to make writing easier and more productive. Working on all of them at once might be daunting, so maybe pick one at a time. And if you want to boil it down to fewer rules? Try this:

Write everyday. Finish your shit. Trust in your ability to tell a good story.

And if you need more? I am a big fan of Heinlein's Rules, I'm going to put them here. Some of them are covered in steps 1-10 but they are worth repeating. These are the key to maintaining a writing career, but are eminently useful for increasing general writing productivity.

Heinlein's Rules

1) You must write(Preferably every day.)
2) Finish what you start.
3) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4) You must put your story on the market. (Entering into competitions or posting to your blog count here. Get it out into the world.)
5) You must keep it on the market until it has sold. (Keep it out there. Doesn't win the competition? Post it to your blog or self publish it. Get people reading your stuff)

Robert J. Sawyer's Bonus Rule

6) Start working on something else.
(One story is never enough. Finish one piece and immediately start on the next. Always be writing.)

For more stuff on Heinlein's rules see Robert J. Sawyer's website. Also worth googling is Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula. It's specifically geared towards pulp fiction, but is a good template for enjoyable stories of other types as well.

Is there more writing advice out there in the world? Absolutely. In my quest to become a better writer (and eventually get paid to do it) I've come across no shortage of writing advice. This is just the stuff I've been working on personally. I just hope it'll be useful for others as well.

Happy Writing!

Friday, 16 October 2015

A Little Bit of Housekeeping

Judging by the stats for this blog I've either found a whole bunch of new readers or have suddenly become a lot more attractive to bots. I'm going to assume that you’re all actual people (or sentient robots, that's okay too) and act accordingly.

Hello! Welcome to my humble little blog.

Honestly this thing is a bit of a mess, since it collates every post from every blog I've ever owned right back to my teenage LiveJournal days. I like having it all in one place though so it stays up. I hope you enjoy reading about what an excruciatingly embarrassing knob eighteen year old me was.

(That said I have just hidden a bunch of posts that aggregated my tweets from 2009. No one wants to see that. And if for some reason you do, it's all there on Twitter anyway.)

The current focus of the blog is writing. Mostly me posting little bits of flash fic I've written, but occasionally I will write some advice that absolutely no one asked for. Sometimes I might do a bit of an update on how my life is going, but that's a lot less interesting than making shit up about fictional people.

So, welcome. Please do make yourselves at home; grab a cup of tea, put your feet up and I hope you enjoy the verbiage I string together.

#whimword - Glow

The screen crackled with static before fading to bright white light. Fifteen people held their breath expectantly. As the intensity of the glow diminished it became clear we were looking at the slow ballooning of a mushroom cloud.

The detonation had been successful.

Only then, when the screen confirmed our victory did I contemplate the enormity of what had just happened. This detonation was more than just the mushroom cloud and the bright flash of energy, it was also the deaths of a hundred thousand people and the poisoning of the land. Some would die quickly, the fortunate ones at least. Most would take months or even years. In decades, children who haven't even been born yet will feel the effects of our actions here today.

I sat down abruptly, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. What had we done? Surely nothing these people have done to us could possibly warrant this.

A week later they brought in a small group of survivors to monitor the progress of their radiation sickness. My superiors told me to investigate ways of speeding up the process. I refused. Our "subjects" were walking corpses and I had had a hand in that. I couldn't bring myself to look at them.

I quit the next day.

I should have left long before then, when I first realised what we were doing was wrong.

At first I wasn't sure what to do. I'd spent my whole life training with the academy of science, learning to turn scientific discovery into military superiority. I didn't know anything else.

Then I realised; I had a passable knowledge of anatomy and was a leading expert in radiation damage. Perhaps I could use this to undo some of what my research had done.

I found the nearest medical centre and they immediately accepted my offer of help. They were understaffed with too many critical patients and far too few resources; they were more than happy to accept an extra pair of willing hands.

At first I got given menial jobs only; cleaning up waste, carting patients around and folding laundry. I did what they asked but that kind of work always left me with too much time to think. And I chafed; I felt I could be more use elsewhere.

When a patient started crashing while I was transporting them I didn't hesitate, I went straight into medical mode. I  remember barking out orders to those around me and they were  followed. The patient didn't make it, but I'd done everything I could and shown how I could really help.


I'm still here, at the hospital. It's been years now, but the sick keep coming in. Because of me and what I've done. I've considered going back home, but the nightmares still haven't stopped. The guilt is still haunts me. I don't think it'll ever go away.

Anyway, I'm showing signs of radiation sickness myself; I'll probably be dead soon anyway. Feels to me like karma; I deserve nothing less.