A Writer Not Writing

A Writer Not Writing

I’ve not blogged in a long time.

I was preparing a piece on the importance of touch typing, and the irony is not lost on me. I’ve been ill. It started with a slight swelling in my right foot accompanied by numbness and a tingling sensation that spread to my legs. It wasn’t unpleasant, pulling my trousers up over a mad tingling was oddly thrilling; but, particularly when it reached my bottom, it was fear inducing terrifying. Around the same time I also caught hypochondria off the internet.

After a while, it flipped: below the waist went back to normal, but above the waist various parts took it in turn to swell up, go numb, tingle or a combination of the all three. I’ve seen eight Doctors (sadly medical, rather than the actors in my favourite TV show), who have all shrugged in various ways. What are the criteria before I can claim Wake’s Syndrome?

Finally, after weeks, it settled in my hands.

My hands!

My motor skills were still there, I could feel textures and temperature, but the ‘signal noise’ meant anything I used to do purely by touch became impossible. I couldn’t do up buttons, I couldn’t handwrite and, worst of all, I couldn’t touch type. A writer who can’t write is a truly useless thing.

I tried dictation software, correct ‘so oft were’, no don’t write ‘so oft were’, oh undo, no, not the whole paragraph, don’t type that youth king stew bit computer… and so on, until there’s just a document full of swearing. It’s affected the way I speak.

“Hello comma Andy comma how are you question mark.”

Things like being unable to get my credit card wallet out of my pocket, while the cashier looked at me disparagingly and the queue behind built up impatiently, have given me a real appreciation of disability issues.

Gradually, at a Plutonic frozen nitrogen glacial speed, it’s gradually getting better. Typing became possible with an error every other word, then two per sentence and so on, until now it just feels really strange. I’ve not tried a thousand word sprint yet, but I am back to typing – phew.

However, the idea of finishing the third Derring-Do Club novel by the Steampunk convention, Asylum, has been blown out of the water. My heroines are nowhere near surviving the terrible events of the Invasion of the Grey, but I’m finally writing their adventures again.

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In defence of wannabe writers

Referring to someone as a ‘wannabe’ writer (or a ‘wannabe’ anything) is insulting.  It’s definitely used in writing circles to refer to those who aren’t really going to contribute to a group.  I’ve used it myself.  We don’t want wannabes in this group, because we want to talk about ‘real writing’, etc.

Occasionally, I attend an excellent beginners group that meets in local pub, and I’d certainly recommend it.  It has its share of wannabes, I suppose.  Rather difficult to spot them, because people contribute so well, but I’d guess they are there.  I’ve certainly met wannabes on writing courses.  There’s always one or two, who you think ‘they’re never going to write anything’.  They just talk about writing.

I’ve met the equivalent on film courses: those who haven’t written their blockbuster script yet, but have memorised their Oscar acceptance speech.

So, I want to be in a writing group that doesn’t have any wannabes.

I’m being unfair, I know I am, and yet…

Of course, there ought to be a range of groups.  You can find one that’s not too hot, not too cold, not too salty, not too sweet, but is just the right distance from the star for your kind of life.  No point trying to discuss Indie Publishing marketing strategy with someone who’s asking where you get your ideas from and vice versa.  (“I want to know where you get your ideas from, but you all just sit around saying you don’t have a proper marketing strategy!!!”)

Clearly, after a while, perhaps you’ll need to be promoted to a higher league or, in my case demoted a league to learn about commas yet again.  Or a new idea may need one approach and rewriting another set of opinions.

There are obviously professional writers, those who make a living out of writing down to those who make a few bucks a year.  (Bucks, because we all sell on Amazon.)  There’s also professional in terms of approach: those who approach the task with the right attitude.  They may not make any money – yet – but they seem to be going about it in the right way.

So:-

  • Professional-professional – pick a crime writer.
  • Professional-amateur – gets paid loads for just messing about (hate them).
  • Amateur-professional – works at it, but hasn’t made dollar one, yet.
  • Amateur-amateur – somewhat hopeless.
  • Wannabe – er…

You see, they don’t quite fit into the scheme, do they?  It’s someone who attends a group or course, usually diligently, and talks about the novel they are planning, but doesn’t put fingertip to key.

But I’m being unfair (and so are others, hint, hint).

Part of being a child is playing and part of playing is daydreaming.  However, once we become adults, we’re not allowed to daydream.  It’s a waste of time, you must be serious, get a job!

But, for quite a lot of my time, I’m entertaining myself in my own head, and it’s called ‘writing’.  Some of it is dry technical stuff, the blood seeping from the forehead, the agony of repetitive strain injury, the damage to the liver that inspiration extorts and so on, but most of the time it’s daydreaming.  Flicking to channel ‘steampunk’ and watching the mental movie unfold.  And it’s fun.

Now, if you can do that without all the dreadful hard work of typing, then why not?

Except you are an adult.

So, do a writing course or join a writing group, and you are given permission.

And that seems a good thing to me.

Good place writing, bad place technologically

I seem to be in a good place with my writing (although this morning was blood from a stone).  There’s a theory that when you finished something, you should put it in a drawer for a few weeks, so that you can come back to it afresh.  I seem to be handing them to beta-readers and then getting on with something else, which is very productive.  I’ve a fantasy trilogy (The Jackdaw’s Choice, the Crows’ Banquet and The Raven’s Way) and a political thriller (We’ll Cross That Bridge) being scribbled on in red ink.  (Actually black ink and Word comments, I think.)

In the meantime, I’m writing a first draft of the next Derring-Do Club steampunk adventure.  I got a fan letter (email) asking when the next book was due, and this was all the excuse that the sisters required to get back into my head.  It’s good to be in their company again.

The real trick has been to ban myself from social media until I’ve done my thousand words, morning and afternoon.

Facebook, WordPress, LiveJournal and Google+, where you are reading this, are such vampires of time and creative energy.  It feels like you are busy, catching up, making progress and generally being constructive, but I’m just not convinced.  The other time waster in my life is also technological.  We had our cable TV upgraded to the point of complexity.  The remote control has more buttons, so they are smaller and therefore I need my reading glasses to work out what the tiny white letters mean.

Can anyone recommend a good, easy to use all-in-one remote control?

I’ve one of the sonic screwdrivers, but you can’t put it down without accidentally changing channel or screen mode.

I really need one with one big button labelled “Telly!”  The equivalent of Spotify’s ‘Discover’: gimme something to watch and now.  A trillion options take a long time to scroll through.  I had to buy a video recorder when there were only four channels, now it’s “come on, there must be something on.”  I’ve actually forgotten how to set the DVD recorder and as for getting the new Tivo to do its thing… later.

Ah well, things are much simpler in Victorian times.

Freeform Roleplaying

I was nattering over New Year with some University chums, and the subject of roleplaying games came up.  Back in the day, we used to run these gigantic freeform entertainments.

“When was this?” Martin Ellis asked.  “Were you the first?”

I can’t believe we were actually the first, but we must have been in that mix.

“It’s all written up in inter*action or whatever that games journal Andrew Rilstone edited,” I replied.

“Freeform games are a sub-category of live-action role-playing.  They appear to have been invented independently in several gaming groups in Britain, America and Australia in the middle of the 1980s.”

Inter*action, Issue 1 (1994)

But it wasn’t a sub-category of live-action role-playing.

At Birmingham University, it all started with people playing Dungeons & Dragons and Runequest, but there was a gradual split between those collecting the various supplements to study at all hours and those of us who began to create our own systems.  I was particularly proud of one that used every dice I had: it was superb at simulating machine guns, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, more than makes up for it being unsatisfyingly cumbersome and overly complex at everything else.  Our freeform, you see, came from tabletop gaming.

I remember James Steel’s furiously consulting notes and rolling dice behind his GM screen as the adventure continued.  I was there to observe (mostly likely waiting for them to finish so we could all go to the bar), so I walked around to see what he was doing: his notes were blank, he was ignoring the dice rolls; the players had ‘gone off the map’.

He was just making it up.

This clearly was the way to go and I soon dumped all the rules in the games I ran.  (Or rather, I had rules that were ignored, players seemed to need the reassurance of the props, much as James had been doing with his notes and dice.  They wanted to be playing a game, not just making it up as we all went along.)

The ‘systemless’ system eventually boiled down to the following:-

Character Creation: pick a major and minor skill, anything.

Game Mechanics: ignore the skills and use ad-hoc mechanisms for any adjudication.

Campaign Background: what you’re in, e.g. a spaceship in orbit around… etc.

I do remember one player, at a particularly sticky moment in the game, suddenly shout: “Wait!  I have ‘spider sense’ as a minor skill.  What does it tell me?”

“Hmm…” I replied.  “Your spider sense tells you that you are in great danger.”

“Oh… great.”

I think that was the only time that game mechanics reared its ugly head.

These games became popular, expanded and collided with Mike Ibeji’s games, and the two of us ended up co-running these massive games for 30+ people.  We sort of stepped away from the table and started running about.  We took this to a gaming convention a few times.  Andrew Rilstone described it quite well in the quote I’d been looking for, which wasn’t in Inter*action (or Interactive Fantasy as it became) at all, but in his fanzine.

“The other excitement arose when I bumped into a group of people from Birmingham University.  Imagine my delight at finding myself in the middle of a group of people who have been independently experimenting with very much the same types of games we were describing in the ‘Real Life Roleplaying’ supplement, last issue.  Indeed for me the highlight of the whole convention was playing this group’s live action Star Wars game.  I don’t know what the opposite of Limited Environment Gaming is, but this was it.  The game started in the Millennium Falcon, hastily constructed out of chairs in a corridor, and shifted to the college grounds when we landed on Endor.  At this point, we appeared to be acquiring an audience… most of whom were hastily written into the game as ‘extras’.  The game was full of clever ideas, like the players playing (alternately) both the rebels and the stormtroopers; and combat being resolved on the basis of the players reflexes (if you have ever tried to pilot a TIE fighter through an asteroid field, simply by saying ‘up’, ‘Down’, ‘Left’, ‘Right’ or ’Forward’ as the referee describes where in your field of vision the various large hunks of rocks are, you’ll know it isn’t as easy as it looks.)  Resolving combat against Darth Vader with rubber lightsabres is also fun.  Very, very silly, and an awful lot of fun: I certainly hope to see this group running a more serious game at some time in the future.”

Aslan, Issue 10

I do miss it.  I’ve not role-played in an age and I’m put off joining groups for the same reason as was before: I can’t be bothered learning a lot of irrelevant rules.  I do occasionally go to Box of Frogs, an Improv acting group that meets on a Tuesday, opposite the pub were the writing group meets at the same time.  An Improvisation instruction (possibly from the audience) like, say, ‘you’re a businessman with a secret’ could easily be interpreted as a rolling-up a character.

Strangely, in the first issue of Inter*action there’s an article: Improvisation in the Theatre by the one and only, Michael Cule.  He and I have acted on stage and talked about gaming.

But maybe I’m still doing it.  After all, what’s writing, if it isn’t rolling up a bunch of characters and playing all them in your head.

U for Understanding, V for Vendetta, W for Wishful Thinking

“People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”

Er… no.

I have a soft spot for the film “V for Vendetta”, it’s really stylish and effective, a good movie, often sniffed at I think, because it isn’t as good as the graphic novel.  Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s classic was translated by the Wachowski Brothers (sic) is something of an updated version.  After all, we’ve moved on from Thatcherism: so, whereas Maggie wouldn’t sell the Royal Mail, Cameron did, and… well, read up about various modern abuses of power regarding political reporting and anti-fracking demo measures.

The film has a few odd Americanisms.  I think Natalie Portman is excellent by the way, very plum voiced, and fine.  There are bowls of peanuts on the bar in British pubs, but clearly living under a fascist state would change the cuisine.  V and then Stephen Fry serves ‘eggy in the basket’, which is what?  Fried egg on fried toast, but you throw the middle away and only keep the crusts!?!  Obviously not a dish created in the land of the little cucumber triangles.  But V and Stephen Fry’s character probably had an American aunt or again fascism banned all programmes, except some weird cookery competition.

However, the real Americanism is the concept, stated by V, that “people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”

That’s basic Second Amendment nonsense: the United States was born in revolution, fighting free of those heinous bastards from over the pond.  You know, we Brits, who had the temerity to tax tea.  This, coupled with the frontier spirit of a man doing what a man’s got to do with his ‘peacemaker’ led to an enshrined basic distrust of government.  Ever since the declaration of independence, the American people have been fighting a cold war with themselves.

The people should not be afraid of their governments, certainly, and the government should not be afraid of their people.  We should be in it together, respecting our laws makers as they respect everyone’s rights.  Sadly, we have a government full of those more interested feeding their personal greed than anything else.  Not so much Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face – forever, but a deluge of bills for everything from water, reading ebooks, health and bailing out bankers whose bets for their own wallets went sour.

You know, I have a novel I could rewrite with this in mind.  If only I could think of a good title for it.

Doctor Who’s Master Plan

I’ve just watched “Time and the Rani” followed directly by “Ghost Light”, the worst story and then the best (arguably) of Andrew Cartmel’s era as script editor.  There couldn’t be two stories so utterly different.  Andrew Cartmel was a Guest of Honour at the recent ArmadaCon and was interviewed about his writing, and then about Doctor Who.  I bought his memoirs, “Script Doctor”, and I’ve just finished it.  It’s a fascinating insight.  So, I thought I’d watched the first and worst story – and, boy, was it bad – and the one he considered the best.  Now, I’d argue (hence ‘arguably’ above) that “The Curse of Fenric” was marginally better, but they are both truly excellent.

Andrew Cartmel sort of inherited Pip and Jane Baker’s opener for Sylvester McCoy and… oh dear.  The problem with it was the pantomime attitude to the programme that came in with Colin Baker’s jacket and the introduction of Bonnie Langford’s character.  (I’ve met Colin Baker and he even persuaded me to break the law for him, and I’ve a lot of respect for him, and I’ve Bonnie Langford’s signature somewhere.)  The issue is that his jacket is loud, therefore he’s loud, therefore Bonnie is loud to compete, everyone else does the same and we’ve ‘behind you’ and the playing of spoons.  It’s just hopeless and into this fray comes Sylvester McCoy doing pratfalls and physical comedy.

Andrew Cartmel believes in proper science fiction.  His book outlines his attempts to turn the ship and he does so.  I was, during Andrew’s spot at the convention, disparaging about his first season in a question, but I was unfair.  Even with “Paradise Towers”, the second story, you can see evidence of a better approach, but we were trained by that stage to spot nonsense, so we all looked for it.

Most periods of Doctor Who can be identified by the companion(s).  This is the way that the production team stamp their identity upon the programme.  Because Mel, Bonne Langford’s character, came from the pantomime style, so the Doctor remained defined by it, but as soon as Ace came on the scene, the whole dynamic of the pairing changed, the 7th Doctor matured and the programme jumped up leaps and bounds.  Basically, Cartmel’s Master Plan, as it’s been erroneously called, could make itself felt.  There was no Master Plan according to how I understood Andrew during his guest spot, but, I think, a correct attitude to Science Fiction (and writing for that matter).  The stories come from a sound idea rather than being nonsense decorated with an “it’s sci-fi so you can do anything you like” attitude.  (Was that a Moffat quote creeping in… you know, I think it was.)

Some of the best Doctor Who was the Ace period, Seasons 25 and 26: good solid pure SF with a brilliant companion and a mysterious and manipulative Doctor.  It is such a shame that he wasn’t allowed to move forward and give us Seasons 27, 28, 29 and so on.  He had a good relationship with a Producer, who trusted his opinion, and a good batch of writers, who understood SF, and had learnt how to avoid certain pitfalls with the way television was made in those days.

Stephen Moffat wrote a forward to “Script Doctor”, but I’m not sure he read the book.  Andrew Cartmel would not have allowed the moon to be an egg, etc.

The Killer Yarn

I’ve just passed the 100,000 words mark with the fantasy novel I’m currently working on. Strange how we note these round numbers, isn’t it? It doesn’t actually matter how big it is, after all, does it? I mean, for example, who cares about the word length of, say, this paragraph?

It’s the age of the ebook, when every individual book (and every book added together and everyone’s completely library) weighs between 170 to 290 grams, surely the terms ‘short story’, ‘novella’, ‘novelette’ and ‘novel’ aren’t as useful as they once were.

After all, ‘novel’, and all the lengths that have that as the root, means ‘new’ and they’ve been around for a while now.

The Hugos define them thus:

• Short story: Less than 7,500 words.
• Novelette: 7,500 to 17,500.
• Novella: 17,500 to 40,000.
• Novel: over 40,000 words.

We can go slightly further than this: Flash Fiction is between 300 to 1,000 words. A Drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drabble (the second paragraph of the History section is the important one). A ‘dribble’, therefore, has been defined as 50 words.

It’s all nicely quaint, although shouldn’t a Novella be a female novel? (By the same token, a more female ‘Barbara’ would be ‘Barbarella’, someone with another female chromosome making her XXX.)

No-one completely agrees, of course. Novel-in-90 goes for 67,500 words. NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, defines a novel as anything above 50,000 words. (So a careful crafted Hugo winner could be disallowed by those knock out first drafts in 30 days.)

It all has the same feel as the yards and furlongs of old imperial measurements. If you pour a US gallon into a good old British and Commonwealth English Imperial gallon, how many pints have you been short changed by?
Isn’t it about time for a metric system of writing?

Might I suggest the ‘yarn’ as the steel ruler in the French National Archives along with the second and the Kelvin.

A yarn thus is – by definition – 50 words. This is a dribble, the length of an anecdote, enough to tell a story, just about. For example, my opening paragraph is exactly a yarn or 1 y. This blog, 12.9 y.

If we subdivide this, then a centiyarn is 5 words or the length of a sentence clause. This could be a useful subdivision for discussing prose as I can say that the previous, rather awkward sentence, is 3.4 cy. Readability indexes would be well to use the centiyarn. A milliyarn is half a word or about syllable. (On average there are 0.6 syllables per word, which is an allowable smidge over the milliyarn, I’m sure you’ll agree.) So the measurement system is convenient for words.

Going the other way, the 100 yarn dash is 5,000 words, which is the length of an average (using the word rather sloppily) short story or the chapter of a novel. The novel becomes anything that’s a 1,000 yarns or 1 kiloyarn or above. (NaNoWriMo becomes Inkywrimo, the International Kiloyarn Writing Month.)

Thus:-

• Flash fiction: up to 10 y. (1-500 words.)
• Short fiction: 10 – 100 y. (500-5,000 words.)
• Medium fiction: 100 – 1,000 y. (5,000-50,000 words.)
• Long form: 1 ky and above. (More than 50,000 words.)

Novels do become really easy to talk about. You can instantly compare the sizes of say, War and Peace (1.2 ky), Fahrenheit 451 (0.9 ky) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (3.8 ky). My last book, The Derring-Do and the Year of the Chrononauts is finally comparable to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (that’s 2.0 ky as opposed to 9.2 ky). The Guinness World Record Holder for the Longest Novel is À la recherche du temps perdu coming in at a whopping 25 ky.

So, my fantasy work in progress just passed the 2 ky threshold – woo hoo!