« July 2010 | Main | October 2010 »

August 27, 2010

I Should Be Writing

It's odd how people can tell you something for years, but until you get to that combination of being ready to hear it and someone putting it to you the right way...

Heaps of people, especially Vickie, have been telling me to just write for ages, especially with regard to Slamdance. But after I sat down late last year and got three chapters into re-writing Slamdance as a stand-alone own body of work, I felt as though I had to do a lot of development work before I continued on. I needed to lay down a framework (write the story bible, do character back-stories, figure the villain's motivations, etcetera) so that I could figure out what came next and make sure it all made sense. Basically, I was afraid of two things: Writer's block and the end result being crap. So I stopped writing again.

Then, at some point, I think it was Wil Wheaton who mentioned a piece of advice Neil Gaiman (yes, I know you're not fond of him, love, but I still like Good Omens) gave: Don't be afraid to suck. But it still didn't feel like a practical piece of advice. It's all very well not being afraid of sucking, but it's still something you should actively avoid, right?

In a way, I think I have Stephen Fry to thank for finding a podcast called I Should Be Writing. I remember hearing maybe a month and a half ago that his preferred way to make long walks pass quickly is to listen to an audiobook. So I fired up iTunes, searched for science fiction podcasts, came across Escape Pod and downloaded a few episodes. The first I listened to was a short story called “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky, read for the podcast by Mur Lafferty.

Now, if you read Knights of the Dinner Table, you probably know Mur from her Geek Fu Action Grip columns. She's also written for White Wolf; she's mentioned work she's done on Mage and Exalted. But my first exposure to Mur was through that reading, and I liked it so much that I searched for other stories she'd read and/or written (not to mention more of Rachel Swirsky's stuff), and discovered that she has a podcast of her own.

Mur describes I Should Be Writing as a podcast by a wannabe fiction writer for wannabe fiction writers, and I reckon that, combined with Mur's focused-yet-easygoing delivery, is why I like it so much. It's easy to get treatises on writing from successful veterans, but Mur's right there in the trenches with the rest of us, making her own way as a fiction writer step by step. Mur knows how hard it is to juggle sitting down and cranking out a thousand words a day with your other commitments, or slash through your own first draft with your correction pen's blood-red ink, or handle the downer of your hundredth fucking rejection slip (not that I'm that far along yet) and she has a great presenter's voice. She's unstinting with her advice and thoughtful in her replies, and her conversations with fellow authors from big names like Michael A. Stackpole and Pat Cadigan to up-and-comers like Scott Sigler (go out and buy Ancestor, by the way – or listen to the free audiobook version on his website) and even folks like herself are a little different than anything I've heard or read before.

Funnily enough, the lightbulb moment for me came not from the podcast itself but from a guest spot on the ISBW blog by writer Jared Axelrod. The two lightning bolts were these:

  1. Not only are you allowed to suck, but on your first draft, you're going to. Indeed, it's highly likely that every bestseller with deserved critical acclaim was nigh-unpublishable in its first draft.
  2. So what should you worry bout when writing your first draft? Just what happens next. Nothing else. Don't worry about themes or continuity or whether it's working; don't go backward and edit a damned word. Just keep writing until that particular story is done.

Mur even addresses point 2 in one of her earlier podcasts (I think it was a piece of advice from another author, maybe Stackpole): If you write a character as an only child in your first draft chapter 2 and by chapter 10 you discover that you need her to have a sister, don't go back and re-work your previous stuff; that's what your next drafts are for. For now, just write the sister in and keep ploughing forward.

It feels as though a weight's been lifted. You creatives out there know what I mean; even though everyone's falling over themselves to tell you how god you are, that little inner critic keeps telling you you're crap and you shouldn't bother; you've left your run too late, you'll never learn what you need to and if everyone's telling you how great you must be there's no way in hell you'll meet their expectations. Now, if I start getting myself down I can just tell myself, “Hey, I have permission to suck. In fact, I'm going to revel in the suckage! You know why? Because I know that there's around three more drafts to come before I plonk it down in front of anyone.”

In hindsight, putting chapters of Slamdance up on the web was a really big mistake confidence-wise, although I didn't know any better at the time. I was so desperate for attention that I treated my first draft as if it were ready to publish; when I looked at it again within a week, I knew it sucked, but... y'know, I thought that was what I was meant to be doing. And after all, it was just fanfic, right?

So from here on out, I'll Just Keep Writing until Draft 1 is done and then give it the full second-to-fourth draft treatment before I send it out to anyone interested in being a first reader (if you are, let me know, but be prepared; it'll mean going through a novel's worth of text with a red pen and being honest without being cruel about what works and what doesn't).

This means, of course, that you folks wanting to read more of my stuff, especially Slamdance, are going to have to wait for a while longer. But I'm doing it. If you've got Twitter, I've been tweeting word counts on there when I finish a writing spurt and I'll start putting editing progress up once I start getting into the second and later drafts.

And that's somewhere around 1,100 words. Good enough for now. 'Night, everyone!

August 17, 2010

Spicing Up The Weekly Review

A couple of years back, I bought a copy of organising guru David Allen's seminal work, Getting Things Done (or How To Get Things Done, the name it's published under in Oz). It was recommended in Lifehacker, a book I picked up in the library about using everyday, garden-variety tech to get your life under control. The contributors to the Lifehacker website also make frequent mention of the strategies Allen espouses in the book.

Now, I like to think of this little tome as a Single Player Roleplaying Game where the game is Life, and I've had about as much success with it as I've had with tabletop RPGs over the last few years. The goal of Getting Things Done is that mental state in which, to quote the book, “I absolutely know right now everything I'm not doing but could be doing if I decided to.” This to me is a very worthy goal, and I feel like I'm partway there; I've got a diary system and lists for my action items in place, but I come unstuck on maintenance and projects, big and small.

In GTD terms, a project is any task that would take more than one fairly un-complex physical action to get done. This, therefore, could be anything from the big stuff like writing a Slamdance novel or refinancing our home loan through organising a car-pool timetable for the Gordonvale Area Taskforce to writing a blog post (write it, set it up in Movable Type). Basically, each project needs a clear definition of “done” and a fairly solid picture of the individual steps needed to get there. This information needs to be filed somewhere I can access fairly easily and the “next” steps added to my portable list of actions so I can look them up whenever I sit back and say “okay, what can I be doing this very moment?”.

Maintenance involves spending around one hundred and twenty consecutive minutes a week going over all the stuff I've accrued since last time, updating the lists so I feel like I've got all the small stuff under control, then – I'm trying to put this in a way that doesn't sound all corporate and buzz-wordy – looking at the larger and larger pictures of my life to make sure that I'm not neglecting what I want to be doing with myself in all the minutiae.

When it comes down, both of these things need me to sit down and spend some time brainstorming, making notes and thinking about what I'm doing. That, I'm sure you'll agree, isn't the most thrilling way for anyone to spend his or her time. I'm thinking, therefore, about ways to jazz the process up a bit.

My first thought was to use the weekly review process as fodder for a blog post. It seems a little self indulgent, but on the other hand I'll be looking at how my last week's been, what I have coming up and what I plan to do, which, in theory, is more focused than the usual brain dump / think piece.

The main obstacle I foresee with that is juggling taking notes for a blog post with the writing and updating. So, rather than take written notes, set the microphone up, run Audacity and make an audio recording as I go. Hey, why not? If you've ever met me, you know how I love the sound of my own voice! (Right, darling?) I've also found sometimes that speaking an idea helps make it a little more concrete, easier to manage, more possible than it seems when it's just knocking around in my head.

There's another obstacle which is more technical than time-consuming, though. While I was keen on a paper-based organising system, I've found that it's more of a pain in the arse to manage than I first thought. I'm still getting the hang of this “next physical action” jazz; I tend to put down what seems like an action but is actually a project (say, “Sort out buying a laptop”) and when I figure out what the real next action ought to be (“Go to JB Hi-Fi and browse selection”) I have to put a line through what I originally wrote on my index card and re-write it.

Also, the 8” x 5” index cards I use to maintain my lists aren't great for projects; the only thing I can really keep on them is the name of the project and its “done when” condition. Making notes on possible actions and reference info fills the cards up too quickly and I wind up with an unwieldy stack of cards tucked into my diary.

That's one of the reasons I'm looking forward to getting a netbook; I hope that running some GTD-compatible software on it will make getting organised that much easier and more interesting. For the moment, I'm going to have a fiddle with the web-based Nirvana, which is currently in closed beta. I'd still like something whose data is based on my PC and accessible if / when the Net isn't available to me, though.

August 02, 2010

Free Effin' Time

Have you ever said this about someone, or heard someone say it about someone (possibly you)?

"That (guy/girl) has to much free fuckin' time on (his/her) hands."

I'm sure you have.

So let me ask you this: Is not the aim, the end point, if you will, of the advancement of technology / civilised society / culture, etc. the state wherein everyone has nothing but free fuckin' time on their hands?

If such is the case, why is this state, the very goal of civilisation, looked down on so?

And if not, then what is the point?

(This is why I wanna play and/or run me some FreeMarket sometime.)

Vickie's Laptop Upgrade

You know, in the midst of my upgrading frenzy, I forgot to mention Vickie’s Toshiba Satellite A100. Since I bought it for her, Vickie’s had to wrestle with Windows Vista. It’s developed the odd tendency to spontaneously shut itself down, possibly due to overheating even though we bought a cooling pad for it. A while back its screen stopped working; the back-light still works, but nothing appears on the display. Finally, the 110GB hard drive is around 70 percent full.

So once we re-finance, I’m going to take it into a local repair place with the mandate to not only fix the screen but also double the RAM to 2GB, install a larger hard drive and whack Windows 7 on. I might also inquire about netbook options for me in the hope that we can get the lot for a good deal.

As for the cooling issue, we reckon a portable aircon unit will do the job.