Swings, Roundabouts

broken watches
Photo on Visualhunt

I’m well-overdue to touch base with my blogging. It feels like days to me, it must be said, and yet it’s getting on for fourth months. I’ve lost a blogging season! So, back when the year was young, I banged on about embracing organisation. How’d that go?

Middling. What I gained on the swings I lost on the roundabouts. My uni work—researching and writing up a thesis for my honours year in sociology, which completes at the end of this semester—stayed organised and has gone according to plan. It’s taken some hard work, with more yet to come. This semester, most of the assessment happens close to the end, right when the thesis itself is due, so it’s been a lot like sprinting towards the mountain to be sure you’re there when the avalanche hits.

But the positive side is that I’m currently ten thousand or so words into the thesis and on schedule.

My fiction writing did less well. At first, I observed the writing schedule and managed to write one short story of 8,000ish words and was glad to have done so. After that, I needed to borrow time for uni deadlines, mostly, and the odd life crisis, and as things proceeded, it became easier to give up the blocked out writing time. (Which, as an explanatory note, included time put aside to update this blog.)

I don’t entirely hold it against myself. I do have obligations to meet and the time has to come from somewhere. I’m the only one who suffers when I don’t write and that makes writing the natural target when time is short. But I do feel… I want to say a wistful pang, but it feels more like that time I tried to pass a gallstone the size of a golf ball.

Still, it’s not all red ink in the writing ledger. It’s important to remind yourself of that, I think. I’ve written 10,000 words of the thesis. That constitutes a substantial chunk of an entirely unfamiliar genre of non-fiction writing. That’s also included taking feedback from my thesis supervisor and rewriting. The aforementioned 8,000ish SF story may only be partway to my original fiction writing goal, but it’s not nothing. There’s still another 5,000 words of the thesis to be written, and 6,000 words of additional assessment split between an essay and script for a presentation summarising my research. Research itself is a transferable skill for writers, as is the discipline of sitting in the chair and producing words to a deadline.

I’ve also been nibbling around the edges of writing. Reading articles and blog posts on the craft and business side of things, and listening to my favourite podcasts, such as Writing Excuses. I’ve jotted down a few notes and ideas. It’s not enough to quiet the bellowing of my “wistful pang”, but it’s something.

The lesson, I suppose, is to organise, and do your best, yet recognise that there will always be trade-offs. And I can still hope to do better.

Directions & Timetables

Pick a DirectionGranted, “directions & timetables” sounds like the world’s dullest fantasy role-playing game. (Though, in this game I’m pretty sure my character class would be a half-orc perfectionist/procrastinator with an alignment of chaotic indecision.) Still, it’s actually a fairly straightforward description of what I’ve been up do.

In my last couple of blog posts I was concerned that my writing had been directionless. I’d picked novel writing as a direction and set out with the determination to tick that bucket list item within an inch of its life.

Of course, at that time, I was very much in the midst of my end of year break from university—to the extent that such things exist while working your way through an honours year, when you really ought to be working on the terrifying Lego of your thesis whether a semester is officially unfolding or not. I was simply procrastinating my thesis and exercising my denial superpower to pretend I could make writing-goal decisions in isolation. Well, ha.

As 2017 shuffled towards its inevitable anti-climax and 2018 promised to haul itself from the radioactive meltdown of the old year to begin its own rampage, ignoring my thesis by covering my eyes and pretending I was invisible proved less and less practical. At the same time, my efforts to pull together a novel-writing project hit a weird, writers-blocky paralysis that was both frustrating and depressing.

I feel foolish in hindsight, because it is my experience that an inability to write is most often rooted in a subconscious awareness that you’ve taken a wrong step, which shuts you down until you walk it back to the point of divergence and course-correct. But, I didn’t understand the problem at the time, and it did contribute its own sour flavour to a fairly stressful start to the new year.

A week or so ago, I began to get a handle on things, starting with the realization that I was torturing myself about two major, year-long projects but doing too little about actually achieving them. I was living the parable of the boiling frog, suffering in the heat rather than jumping to safety. It’s a good thing I’m pretty, because I am not smart.

BullseyeI decided to research goal-setting and time management. For starters, I’m good at research, so it was a nice, non-threatening but practical way to kick things off. Because I’m more a writer than most anything else, I confess I went looking for information among sites offering this sort of advice to writers. My first (very fortunate) stop, was The Creative Penn,  the website of author and entrepreneur Joanna Penn, and from there her YouTube channel  and a particular video addressing how to set writing goals and manage time in the context of needing to meet other time-consuming commitments. It was, without hyperbole, perfectly what I was looking for.

It was so perfectly what I was looking for that I’ve included the various links above in order to explicitly add them to the list of invaluable writing resources that I began compiling here last blogpost.

While Joanna’s video essentially revolves around the old time management idea of filling a jar with big stones first, then smaller ones, then sand, where the jar is time and the various rocks are the demands on your time, she explicates the idea thoroughly, with specific applicability to writing, and considerable and contagious positivity. I took notes. And then I set about applying them to the problem of my colliding immovable thesis and unstoppable writing.

One thing became immediately apparent when I dared to finally turn and face my thesis. It really is immovable. The deadline is not my deadline to alter, and when that day comes, as it will soon, I will either be ready or I will fail. I was obliged to acknowledge that the thesis had primacy, however much urgency I’d been feeling about my writing lately. So, although I’d initially taken Joanna Penn’s advice to mean I should declare writing the novel to be my “big rock” goal and schedule it first, by the time I finished examining the demands on my time I realized the “big rock” was the thesis, and writing would have to fit around it.

It was a cheerless realization, but it was also the course-correction I needed to end my paralysis. Knowledge is usually better than cosplaying an ostrich.

My written goals became:

  • Two-Three Year Writing Goal: Complete and submit a novel.
  • One Year Study Goal: Complete research and hand in a high quality honours thesis.
  • One Year Writing Goal, First six months of 2018: Write three short stories
  • One Year Writing Goal, Second six months of 2018: Complete pre-writing/planning for first novel

Obviously, the writing goal for the first six months of this year appears fairly paltry and unambitious. But I stand by it. This reflects my general state of paralysis at the time of planning vs my need to set a goal that was achievable, that would not incur so much pressure that it detracted from the “big rock” goal of that immovable thesis. And, to be frank, if I end the six months with three stories then that will be progress for me and I will be happy.

My next step was to ask what major, specific tasks needed to be completed in 2018 to accomplish these goals, and when did they need to be accomplished. This, I won’t lie, was the time consuming part.

Writing was relatively straightforward, and I quickly used Outlook calendar to schedule necessary preparation. For example, I set aside a day to brainstorm story ideas so that I wouldn’t run out of ideas during a busy semester. I then scheduled a daily hour and a half writing session enabled by getting up earlier.

For the thesis, I first consulted with my thesis supervisor to get a better idea of where I was and what I faced. At her suggestion, I scheduled the rest of January for completing coding and data analysis, and set aside daily time for that, plus daily time for thesis-related academic reading—something which has suffered a lot during my procrastination phase. For a while there, my entire theoretical framework section was looking to be, “I don’t know, Goffman and Stryker and stuff.”

My thesis supervisor also asked for a rough timeline of when I would be handing in first drafts of the various thesis sections and chapters. By now, I was on a scheduling roll. I quickly worked out the required word counts for each section, and what percentage those word counts were of the whole. I worked out how much time I had between the end of January and two weeks before the known deadline for the entire first draft (that two weeks being my safety margin—I have learned to build in safety margins). From that, I applied the word count percentages to the available time to arrive at how long I could spend on each section, and turned that into date ranges. Et voila! Timeline… which I scheduled into Outlook, with daily blocks of time for actual thesis writing.

Another of my supervisor’s suggestions was to schedule my weekends as actual free time, as I’ve had a persistent tendency to simply abandon recreation while university is running, and it’s had a bit of an impact on my stress levels and health. So I re-jigged my various schedules to do just that. Weekends! The prospect of guilt-free weekends was my first inkling that time management had powers I had not previously suspected… I also penciled in some time for recreational reading, a blessing almost as great as weekends.

So last week was my grand experiment with goal-setting and working to a daily schedule.

There were ups and downs. A thing is hardly a thing in its first week of existence, and a novice planner is never going to foresee everything. When various scheduled items tripped over their feet and fell down, I tried to be flexible, to honour the spirit of the schedule by doing a little of everything I had planned for that time-frame, then returned to the ideal schedule when I could. It worked out.

In the first half of the week I accomplished most of the planning and organization described above. Working to my daily schedule in the second half of the week allowed me to further accomplish:

  • Writing 3,500 words of a new science fiction story.
  • Reading six short stories.
  • Coding 700 pieces of text towards my January coding/data analysis goal.
  • Reading 4 academic articles related to the thesis read.

And having a weekend has given me time to schedule the odd writing-related but not actual-pen-on-paper task, such as catching up my blog, and doing some critiquing.

Again, no one’s going to nominate me for the most accomplished human of the week, but I’m very pleased with that. It certainly represents progress away from paralysis. A satisfactory proof of concept.

I’m quite excited to see how it proceeds.

 

Novel Writing Tools

Tools
Photo on Visualhunt.com

 

So, I’m writing a novel with fierce and determined intent. (Or with a healthy dose of fake it until you make it. Hopefully, that’ll add up to the same thing.)

Right now, I’m focused on pulling together data for my honours thesis, which means my writing efforts have been a) slow and b) dedicated to organising the novel as I would any other project. I’ve been reading up on novel writing to give myself some idea of how the process will (or should) differ from writing short fiction. I’ve also been looking at different software or online writing tools that might help.

Those I use, or plan to use, I’ll discuss here. I figure, a few mini-reviews of such toolbox items might be useful to others, and will certainly be useful to me when I (eventually) reflect on the process of having written the novel and compare my expectations for various tools and methods against actual outcomes.

This post, I’m going to discuss two sources of writing information that I’ve found very useful and return to often—Brandon Sanderson’s novel-writing lecture series on YouTube, and a fantastic book on writing by Patricia Wrede.

 

Brandon Sanderson’s Lecture Series

MistbornBrandon Sanderson is one of the leading lights of modern epic fantasy. His Mistborn series is the very exemplar of what I would like to write in terms of genre, style, length, and devotion to world-building. He’s also a writing machine—and if you don’t believe me, glance at his website, where the header features a graph of how close to completion his four concurrent projects are!

There are worse people to learn from!

Evidently, Brigham Young University agrees, as Sanderson lectures there on writing speculative fiction. While it’s difficult not to experience pangs of envy that there are university students learning their craft from Brandon Sanderson, it’s mollifying to know that an entire semester of these lessons has been filmed and uploaded to YouTube for the greedy eyes and ears of those of us not so blessed.

They can be found on the Camera Panda channel and it’s well worth subscribing and revisiting them often until you’ve learned all you can from them.

Each lecture covers different parts of the writing process, from ideas, through structure, outlining, and character development, to writing, editing, and the business of writing. Sanderson’s method for developing an idea is relatively simple but flexible, and explicitly seeks to find the original and cool in your novel-to-be. His discussion of the business is practical and rooted in his considerable experience as a bestselling novelist.

Conveniently, the information accompany each lecture lists the details of topics covered in that video, plus where in the run time those topics can be found.

Hand on heart, it is an astonishing resource for people wanting to write a novel.

 

Wrede on Writing, by Patricia C. Wrede

Wrede on WritingPatricia Wrede has written a good many enjoyable fantasy novels, but may be best known for her brilliantly entertaining YA fantasy series The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

At the risk of hinting at my vast age, I first encountered Patricia Wrede on Usenet, where she frequently posted writing advice to the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition. Wrede staunchly defended the idea that there were no writing rules, only guidelines, and that the standard wasn’t whether something broke a “rule” but whether it worked. Then she would provide a host of different methodologies so those reading her advice could pick what worked for them. While Usenet has atrophied with the rise of social media, a good chunk of her advice from that time has made it into her book, Wrede on Writing.

The book is divided into sections, from the basics, through the “not so basics,” to expert guidance on the business side of things.

Every single chapter is a gem. However, I do have a favourite. Her discussion of viewpoint is a masterpiece of clarity, detailing every major form of viewpoint and how to use it. Each explanation is accompanied by a short scene which recounts the same characters experiencing the same event using that particular style of viewpoint. If there’s a more lucid and edifying description of viewpoint anywhere, I’ve never encountered it. If you’re still at the stage of wondering about viewpoint, or simply where you want or need a refresher sometimes, it’s worth the price of the book all by itself.

Of course, it’s also well-worth spending time on her blog, Six Impossible Things, which is similarly a fount of writing wisdom.

Where I’m At and Where I’m Going…

Blueprint
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Sometimes, you need to stop and take stock. Life happens, time catches you by surprise, change socks you in the jaw, and you just need to stop, look at your feet, look back, look around, and make a plan or two.

Where I’m At

Well, I’m drifting. Three months since my last blog post, two months after the one before that. Blogging isn’t my first priority, but neglecting a blog is certainly a sign—like the wind dropping just before a movie sailing ship falls into the doldrums.

Oh, there’s been some movement.

I’ve finished the first semester of my sociology honours year and taken a bit of a break. Recently, I’ve been in the data gathering phase of my thesis research. My topic ended up focused on relating identity theory to public punitiveness with the aim of improving the public’s satisfaction with criminal justice policy (reflecting my sociology/criminology double major). It’s my first original research, of course, and, though the scope of an honours thesis is limited, it’s been challenging.

I’ve written a couple of short stories and sent them around to the markets. One story was shortlisted at Andromeda Spaceways, but was ultimately rejected.

My social world has taken a bit of a hit, reminding me that nothing is permanent except change. And my self-image has stirred uncomfortably at the approach of a landmark birthday; there’s no pretending I’m permanent, either.

So… movement… but not much to show for a year, either.

Where I’m Going

Well, I sometimes wonder. But my plan necessarily focuses on study and writing.

I already have a substantial plan for study, as that’s a necessity if you hope to end an honours year with a thesis actually in hand. Let’s pretend study will take care of itself.

Writing is the thing. I continue to struggle to make time for it, to my ongoing and deep frustration. University must take precedence if I want all that hard work to pay off, but I do believe I can do better.

There have been two core frustrations:

  • I’ve not been writing enough to practice and improve my skill set, leaving me good enough to know I’m not particularly good, but not good enough to do anything about it.
  • I’ve been writing short stories despite wanting to write a novel, because short stories are bite-sized chunks that fit into narrow slices of available time. But neglecting what you want to do in pursuit of grim practicality is soul-destroying.

With change and mortality firmly in mind, I’m going to stop short stories for a while to focus on my first novel. Rather than dither and procrastinate, as I’ve too often been prone to do with writing, I’m drawing on my university skill set to pursue the novel as an organized project, no different from my thesis—planned, scheduled, actively pursued. I don’t know what the novel will be, yet, or if it will be any good. There may be false starts. But the goal is to produce a finished, novel-length work within eighteen months.

Accountability

To keep myself on track, I’ll be posting progress to the Townsville Spec Fic Facebook group.

And, I’ll blog the process here in, probably, terrifying detail. If the novel equates to my thesis, then this blog will represent my field notes. In the end, I hope to have mapped my own process in a way edifying to my future self and anyone else who chances to read it.

Mini-Review: Wonder Woman

WW
Poster, Wonder Woman (2017)

Honours has been grueling in some respects. But having cleared the assessment decks enough to take a day off, figured I’d watch the new Wonder Woman. By posting a few thoughts about it here, I help mitigate the neglect of my blog that study has also fostered. Ha. (Though I also put them on Facebook, so apologies if you see them twice.)

Full disclosure: Wonder Woman is my favourite super hero and always has been. So I’ve been keen to see the movie but a little nervous about its execution. Well, it was great. I loved it. Gal Gadot owned the part. The World War I setting was inspired and used brilliant. Seriously, the OTT CGIgasm climax needed 90% less CGI (hint: in a movie with the dangers of war in modernity as one of its themes, a middle-aged white guy in a suit is way more threatening than one more rehash of Sauron-in-Armour) and 25% more logic. But it wasn’t enough to ruin the movie… though more than enough, I think, to exclude it from Oscar consideration, as people debate that. Had the climax had the feel (and the ability to inspire feeling) that the No Man’s Land sequence had, maybe I’d be shouting for an Oscar nomination, but not as it is. Regardless, deeply pleased I watched it.

The Degree is Done!

Fireworks
Joy illuminating my inner landscape… 🙂 (Photo via Visual hunt)

Today, James Cook University released its official results, and I passed the semester just gone. This means I have finished my degree. Saying that is roughly as surreal as declaring that I’m a leprechaun. I can’t overstate the extent to which I didn’t believe, when I started, that I would pass any subjects, and finishing was risible in its improbability.

It was certainly hard (and exhausting). Three years and a lot of work. I’d be remiss not to mention that it was Keil Jones who made me go for it in the first place and, by gum, he’s been supportive of me and the whole enterprise throughout. Thanks, Jones!

The path has been a bit screwy. First, it was a BA (English), which got me the Anne Deane Prize for Literature. Then, I switched to a BA (Sociology) because sociology is awesome, and received a letter of commendation from the Dean. Thereafter, I expanded slightly to a second major, the BA (Sociology/Criminology), which led to the Marjorie Prideaux Bursary for criminology. What I discovered was that I’m brighter than I thought, and have a bit of a talent for academic pursuits. Who knew? I was also blessed with lecturers who have been supportive, even praiseful, and generally amazing. And now it’s done. Ha. It’s ridiculous. My overall grade point average turned out to be 6.8 out of a possible 7, which isn’t bad for someone who snuck in feeling like Jed Clampett at a high tea.

At the present moment, I’ve been offered honours in sociology, and have a supervisor and thesis lined up. My thesis topic will be related to identity theory and fear of crime, and I’ll be beginning in the new semester in just a few weeks. My supervisor is aiming me, loosely speaking, for the doctorate program—but one mountain range at a time!

I wanted very much to go to university when I was a teen, but it just didn’t happen. I can’t tell you how bemusing it is to achieve your younger self’s surrendered dream.

Doctor Who Series 10 Finale: Not a Deus Ex Machina

Cyber Scarecrow
Image from The Doctor Falls, BBC

Series 10 of Doctor Who recently culminated in a stunningly good two-part story comprised of the episodes World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. My unreserved enjoyment of these episodes as near perfect television story-telling counts as my full disclosure, as I’m about to defend them and don’t want to give the impression that only logic is in play, here…

Note that here be the dragons of copious spoilers, so stop reading if you’re trying to avoid knowing stuff.

Within minutes of the airing of The Doctor Falls, and since, comments have appeared online that the episode failed and ruined the finale because a significant plot point was resolved by a deus ex machina. Specifically, the Doctor’s assistant, Bill, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, has been turned into a Cyberman through the machinations of the Master and suffered horribly, but at the bleakest moment of failure, she is saved by a near-omnipotent character from earlier in the season, the Pilot.

As most everyone knows, by now, deus ex machina is a critical term that literally means “god from the machine,” and refers, to quote the website Literary Devices, to an author’s solving “a seemingly intractable problem in a plot by adding in an unexpected character, object, or situation” in a way that seems contrived, as if “the author must resort to something that he or she did not set up properly plot-wise.”

Superficially, this doesn’t seem a million miles from what happened when the Pilot saves Bill, then, at Bill’s request, removes the Doctor’s body from the battlefield to the safety of the TARDIS, where, unknown to Bill, he will begin to regenerate. I can understand where the criticism is coming from; I just don’t agree with it.

For starters, the Pilot doesn’t actually resolve any intractable plot problems. The story question here is, Will the Doctor defeat the machinations of the Master and the rise of the Cybermen? That question is resolved purely through the actions of the main characters, their struggles and their considerable sacrifices. Missy brings down the Master and seemingly dies for her efforts. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole save the humans from the Cybermen, and all three understand when they make the necessary choices that the cost will be their lives, or at least their lives as they’ve known them. Not a whisper of deus ex machina there.

Nor does the Pilot resolve Bill’s story question. Bill’s story question is explicitly stated in part one, World Enough and Time. It is: Will Bill survive the Doctor’s rash attempt to test Missy’s newfound goodness? The answer turns out to be: No, and furthermore she will suffer an unfathomably lingering and painful death before sacrificing a tortured half-life in support of the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Cybermen. That is, I would argue that Bill’s story is resolved already by the time the Pilot makes an appearance. She died. In slow, awful stages, her ongoing twilight existence as a cyber-revenant not withstanding. When the Pilot comes, it isn’t to deliver a resolution that Bill is beyond needing, but something else—so still not a deus ex machina.

We’re all critics, these days, and we all have access to a toolkit of critical idiom. Tweet your horror that Steven Moffat committed deus ex machina and very few readers will scratch their head in confusion. But we’re also now inclined to be a culture of hammers who see everything as nails. Working from a checklist of possible literary flaws will guarantee that you often find them, but it will also blind you to the truth that there are other idioms, other toolkits, and I think that’s been the case with The Doctor Falls.

I suspect that an episode which begins with the imagery of crucified cyber-scarecrows, in a story riddled with people sacrificing themselves to redeem others, amid characters who are dying and being reborn through cybernetic intervention or Time Lord regeneration, that the toolkit in play here might be that of religious symbolism.

And at the end, it’s not a deus ex machina that the Pilot brings Bill. It’s grace. It’s the gift of the universe to those who have given their all in pursuit of doing the right thing, and failed because humans are flawed and fail, but sometimes they’re still saved.

There are episodes enough of Doctor Who where the Doctor solves an impossible problem by waving his sonic screwdriver at a contrived Plot Resolution Machine. This isn’t one of them.

This is more like Frodo, who came undone on Mount Doom only to discover that his sacrifices to that point had put in place the elements necessary for providence to finish the job.

It’s a reminder, in dark times that I think could use a few more such reminders, that hope is not foolish because sometimes, however improbably, good things happen.

It’s grace.

Of course, enmeshed as we all are in barbed wire cynicism, this will strike many as far worse than a deus ex machina. It’ll be saccharine or cheesy or whatever curmudgeonly dismissal occurs to them. That’s not my problem. Struck me as joyous and uplifting, and I cheered as soon as I recognised the Pilot on the battlefield and understood how her presence had been set up.

I’m just saying, it wasn’t a literary failing, it wasn’t a deus ex machina and it ruined nothing. It was a feature, not a bug.

Bill simply got the ending she deserved, and I’m glad.

Life in the Old Blog Yet…

Sprout
Photo via VisualHunt

You could be forgiven (are forgiven, I forgive you) for thinking this blog dead, the silence having become both long and deep. It’s not!

Now, I had been trying to put my writing on a more organised footing, integrated with my studies, rah rah life balance. For me, social media was a part of that effort. Alas, after I lost a few work days to Cyclone Debbie just as last semester’s assessment really kicked off, and since last semester was also the final semester of my BA, I was obliged to kick life balance to the curb and go all in to get through. No half-arsing your final semester, because there’s no next semester in which to patch everything up and keep going.

This means, to be clear, I’ve not written anything in ages. My last story is half-done, a lifeless semi-file languishing on Dropbox. And I’ve very much felt the not writing, a piercing ache at the back of everything I’ve done since stopping. But I made the choice and lived with it.

It was the right choice. The semester was a real challenge in more ways than one, and I wanted good results. But the semester is also now over. That’s the reason for this post: to Frankenstein up and declare, “It’s alive!”

Hopefully, the writing will soon follow. I’m mentally tired, I am, and I fear my engine may have stalled. We’ll see. One resurrection at a time…

And Back…

Well, tropical cyclone Debbie has now thoroughly degenerated into a low and is wending its way inland to rain itself into oblivion.

My community was spared, in the end. Cyclones being the wild meanderers that they are, at various times Debbie threatened north of us, to hit us square on, then trended south with occasionally unnerving swings north before bringing its full grief to bear on the Whitsundays and Airlie Beach. As it was, the system was large enough that tens of thousands had to be evacuated from low-lying areas of Mackay, and until close to the end Townsville was still expected to have winds equivalent to a category 1 or 2 cyclone.

Ultimately, Townsville was spared even significant gales, and can account ourselves blessed on that score. Best wishes to those who bore the brunt, who are today beginning the long clean up.

Brief Pause

With tropical cyclone Debbie breathing down my neck of the woods, I’m likely to be absent from the blog and other social media for a brief time. Preparing for the possibility of the cyclone making landfall nearby, in downtime reading Enforcing Order by Didier Fassin as essay prep and distraction (I don’t enjoy cyclones one little bit and tend to become rather anxious when they’re hovering nearby). North Queenslanders, let’s hope it all goes well!