NaNoWriMo – Three Project Reflections

It’s the midst of November, so aspiring wordsmiths across the world are putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard) in order to attempt National Novel Writing Month – the 30-day challenge to put together a 50,000 word novel (or more realistically, a very rough first draft of one)!

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have completed NaNoWriMo three times, most recently in 2012, and again previously I’ve mentioned the three books that I wrote in those ninety days – The Last of the Steamers, The World Eaters and Colonisation.

While my post last year does an admiral job of running through some general tips I learned from that time, I feel today it might be useful to discuss the three books themselves in more detail than I’ve likely done before.

It’s highly likely that none of these books will see the light of day as projects but I’ll expand on why that is – and why I’m not upset about that at first glance – afterward

The Last of the Steamers (2010)

This was my first proper, bona-fide attempt at writing any longform piece of prose and it shows. I’d conceived this grandiose steampunk world of an alternate 1910 where an adventure spanning the globe would take place, and even reflecting on it now it’s a fantastic idea. However, I didn’t at that time have the writerly skill to pull it off, and perusing the manuscript in preparation for this post, it shows both promise and peril.

My main issues from writing Steamers was that I went in with only a sketchy idea, and it was the most “written by the seat of my pants” book of the three I did. I did complete the manuscript at the end of the November and I recall that experience being one of the most satisfying ones in my “writing” career to date as I’d proven to myself that I could do it, which I see as more important that having a finished book resulting.

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Cover mockups from 2010

That said, I’ve always promised myself to revisit the work “once I have the skill to do the story justice” – which has been going on for nearly a decade now. I think a loose aspiration for 2020 would be to start immersing myself in steampunk works for a potential revisit – I think the core story is so brilliant, with so much imagination and great set pieces that I feel I could make it work.

I did learn a big lesson from my attempts at editing the manuscript – plan ahead and work in chapters! I also decided to compress three rounds of editing into one mega round which is why this project stalled – it became too unwieldy to edit, and I hadn’t helped myself! I also feel that during the edit I did overcook it slightly.

Regardless, I’m immensely fond of this work in the back of my mind and recall that I produced an “audiobook preview” which I’m happy to embed below:

Colonisation (2011)

This is probably the Nanowrimo project I’ve poured most of my energies into and I was genuinely surprised in researching this post to discover it was the middle project. I took a lot of the lessons from Steamers on and I had a killer idea for a story – an opposite of The War of the Worlds where it’s the humans invading Mars due to resource depletion! However, I’ll be my harshest critic and admit that Colonisation turned out as pretty much nothing like how I imagined, turning more into a pulpy young-adult book, which is both to its credit and detriment.

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Aspects which I felt worked were the development of the characters – protagonist Rad Stratton and his “failed bromance” with training pal Jon Stryker – a complicated character who remains one of my favourite characters in any work I’ve written – resulting in the “gym scene” (which you can read here) which remains one of my favourite character-driven scenes I think I’ve ever written. I do think some of the imagery is pretty iconic but I did wrestle with both a quite complicated backstory of deception and double-crossing.

The core of the story in Colonisation is solid – I recall receiving praise from a well-read friend on my portrayal of my mollusc-like Martians. And perusing the drafts I have to hand I’m impressed about how adult some of the situations are, with some real tension during the colonist attack on the Martian outpost. I do identify the following pitfalls I thoroughly fell into in writing and working on this:

  • Colonisation_final_2.jpgFirst person perspective: I wrote Colonisation as a first-person limited perspective book through the eyes of Rad, the protagonist. And only I found it extremely limiting in terms of storytelling, so much so I would likely not write a first-person story again, or at least not for a considerable while! One valuable lesson I’ve learned (and taken for The Thaw) is that I am much more comfortable a writer in third-person prose, and that first-person is tough for an inexperienced writer!
  • I planned but didn’t research: I briefly published Colonisation as a Kindle book and received a fair few harsh reviews, largely commenting that the book is based in no sense of reality toward interstellar travel. I realise this in hindsight that while I learned from my experience in Steamers by not planning by chapter, I need to have plausible, buy-able science as the suspension of disbelief required was a stretch for some. That said, some who read it, if they squinted past those oversights, enjoyed it. In hindsight now, obvious candidates for reading how to do a space-based sci-fi better are books like the Expanse books, and The Martian by Andy Weir. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars stands as a totemic example of how to do a Mars colonisation story. I’ve not finished it myself yet but what I have read was enough to realise quite how awry I’d gone
  • Editing error 1: Relying on myself – publishing Colonisation as an indie author – briefly – was an experience and it taught me to be much more cautious about throwing work out there that was poorly edited; in retrospect there were far too many glaring errors for this work to ever have seen the light of the day. And looking back, I know this now from having abandoned otherwise-promising books because of the litany of editing errors. It’s why my philosophy with The Thaw is so much more structured and not reliant on my own perceptions.
  • Editing error 2: While romantic and cathartic, editing Colonisation on a paper printout was a massive error as it doubled the workload – edit the work, then transpose those substantial edits to the digital version. It’s a task that simply hasn’t happened as it’s not fun at all, it’s work. That has sapped my enthusiasm to essentially make the same big changes twice. I’ve learned to just work digitally – it might not be as romantic as editing on paper or using a typewriter but my identification of my own workflow means I need to limit impedances to productivity or I’ll get nothing done.

The World Eaters (2012)

My final outing (to date!) into NaNoWrimo was with my grand space opera The World Eaters – a culmination of everything I feel I learned from Steamers or Colonisation – I’d planned assiduously for writing this one – hoping to create a whole new universe for my story to take place in. Likewise, I attempted with this project to write something completely different to what I’d done before – perhaps a gratuitous attempt at showcasing versatility, but I feel the attempt was the most polished out of the three NaNoWriMo projects I attempted. Looking over the manuscript briefly in preparing this post I feel it holds up pretty well as a first draft; indeed, I was most pleased with the prologue I’d written, which you can now read. I think it set the scene admirably, with great imagery and really dipped into the before, while the rest of the book takes place considerably after.

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But what happened? Simply… I ran out of steam after completing the NaNoWriMo effort for it. I found some early edits on the first few chapters but that’s it. I do feel, now, like revisiting the manuscript as I feel it’s the one of the three I’ve given the least  mental anguish to but in the time since I put pen to paper for The World Eaters I’ve read books such as the Expanse novels and they’re in a class of their own, and I can’t say I’m humongous interested in space opera, especially after reading that, but that’s something that could certainly change – I’d for a long time thought the Fallout games had done post-apoc so well there was no mileage I could take but here we are with the last edit of The Thaw before submission!

Reading over the manuscript to The World Eaters now, I think there’s some golden ideas there and some original worldbuilding but the vehicle the story is told through – the aging space freighter Urba Fawk, which naturally ends up in the wrong place in the wrong time, with it’s crew led by the devilish rogue Jack Dante (as character names go, however, this is one of my best) – screams Expanse to me now, and I worry if it would be considered too derivative.

For what it’s worth, I’m sure I’d just watched (and enjoyed a lot) Firefly

Conclusions

Overall I think my experience with NaNoWriMo has been a positive one – I learned something from each project, and I tried to give something different a go each year. Initially, and importantly, it helped me gain a lot of writing confidence, enough to know I was capable of writing a 50,000 word story in 30 days! But reflecting on it in recent times… I’m not sure if I’d do it again. Certainly I wouldn’t bank on any of my three stories being “publishable” like I believe The Thaw to be, and that’s a book I feel has benefitted from a longer period of time in the oven. But I’ve even learned from that to not be too slow with that, which is something I’ll hopefully look to address in a new project I hope to start next year once The Thaw is being edited by someone who isn’t me!

For those endeavouring in thirty days and nights of literary abandon, let this not put you off, you’re doing something you should be proud of! It’s a fantastic accomplishment regardless, but my advice is there!

Review: The Passengers (Paperback)

The_PassengersOne of the most successful things about The Passengers harkened back to my university days. I recall my lecturer, when discussing effective sci-fi, talked about extrapolating something from the current world into some extreme, and taking the story from there. It’s an approach I find a lot more rewarding than the usual galaxies and asteroids that science fiction is usually, inaccurately, ascribed to.

The Passengers extrapolates a multitude of prescient ideas from 21st century society that make for an engaging, believable and thrilling adventure. It’s a decent mix of ideas also, that may sound disparate but do gel together for a thrilling yarn.

Firstly, the idea of the driverless car – after over a century of innovation with automobiles, finally the human element is dispensed with. This is a technology that’s still in the ascendancy today, but taking strides ever closer to what is predicted in The Passengers. Indeed, one of the backstory threads – that all non-driverless cars have ultimately been outlawed – deals with one of the main teething issues experienced at the cutting edge of this technology – interaction with other cars, and the unpredictability of their human operators.

By removing this unpredictable element of human interaction, driverless cars are portrayed as the holy grail to an efficient personal transport system, largely devoid of the chaos and disorder that comes from having a human behind the wheel. The machinery and artificial intelligence simply runs to a set of rules, though an interesting twist that comes about toward the mid to latter stages of the book is quite what those rules are.

Of course, a decent sci-fi thriller takes an ordinary idea and asks one question: what if…? In The Passengers, this question is posed to be what if the driverless cars that have no manual override get hacked? We begin by following a group of seemingly-normal citizens from a cross-section of society getting in their cars, as Passengers, from therein the fun begins.

But the second societal notion that The Passengers plays with is social media and the mob mentality. Invariably, the “unhackable” cars are hacked, and the fate of the occupants is decided not just by the characters we interact directly with, but by a more intangible influence, that of social media. When lives are at stake, this quickly develops into a full-throated trial by social media with life and death at the hands of tweeters we never meet on an individual level but who only seem to exist as shifting masses, who prove feckless and fickle in the face of the evidence presented to them

This is all good stuff to chew on. But who do we meet as our cast of characters?

The main setting for The Passengers is the members of a supposedly-independent inquest into accidents regarding driverless vehicles, ostensibly to apportion blame. Our protagonist is Libby, a bog-standard everyman hero at first glance, introduced as the “token citizen” in the inquest. She’s forthright, fights for justice… all the characteristics you might expect. Indeed, her characterisation is a little thin, almost bordering on the trite; however the book acknowledges this toward the latter stages when we discover quite why Libby is even in the inquest.

We also have MP Jack Larsson, the antithesis to Libby’s good character – a shady, snide worst-of-the-worst politician, almost a caricature. And the mysterious Hacker, for most of the book an ominous (if slightly cliched) vocal presence throughout proceedings. We’re left to wonder what the Hacker’s motivations are – their initial opening is that they’ve taken control of the eight cars because they can, without making any demands. But this soon evolves into a sick game of life and death, with the participants of the inquest having to decide which occupants to sacrifice for the greater good, according to the rules of the game the Hacker decides to play.

On a conceptual and moral level The Passengers is a fascinating and gripping glance twenty minutes into our future – where autonomous cars are played in a sick game of trial-by-social-media, the purpose of which only becomes clear toward the very end of the novel. This collision of some thought-provoking, prescient social issues – driverless cars, social media power, even the art of spin and how facts are presented – in 2019 gels together well; considerably better than perhaps it might seem.

I’d be remiss to not acknowledge some of the weak points of the narrative and prose that are there – for me they weren’t inherent negatives to my enjoyment of the book. Firstly, the characterisation of the people through which the story primarily takes place through is fairly perfunctory – the characters exist for reasons that the plot needs them to, and we don’t learn a great deal about their personalities beyond tropes. This is fine – indeed, this shares a characteristic, that of the characters existing to help the plot, from one of my favourite technothrillers, Jurassic Park. The Passengers is refreshingly unliterary and plot-centric which results in a pacey, thrilling story that keeps delivering.

However I do feel that the narrative could’ve left the inquest room as a viewpoint more throughout the main thread of the hacked driverless cars – too often the societal impacts of the fast-paced change are merely reported as “thousands of Tweets” or a news report of “massed people”. It felt disconnected and a little subdued -I’d much rather be shown these events rather than be told about them by the social media advisor. But the main meat of the plot takes place over a couple of hours of narrative time so I understand if there’s simply not the space in the briskness of the plot to exit the room containing all the characters we experience the story through – who, conveniently, cannot leave – to adequately build alternate perspectives.

That said, despite a couple of glaring errors (why would Level 5 driverless cars have no manual override to stop the engine at all?) I thoroughly enjoyed The Passengers; to the point where the potential weaknesses were there but ultimately became unimportant in my enjoyment. There’s a great, brisk plot that delivers in spades – a sprinkling of social commentary packaged in an engaging, pacey wrapper – a great, engaging read that makes you think (not too much), and is written in an easy, breezy and slick prose that I really dug quite well. This was another random Waterstones table find that caught my eye – fair to say I’ll be seeking out more of John Marrs’ work on the back of it!

Book Thoughts: Abandoning eInk for Real Ink

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

In 2011 I got my first and so far only Kindle – a grey Kindle 4 – and it revolutionised how I read. And now it sits begotten and forlorn on my shelf in its battered folio case, surrounded by paperbacks.

Honestly even thinking about this makes me realise how irrational this is. But front and centre I’ll admit now that I am re-converting back to paperbacks, to the degree even that I’m seriously planning to rebuy the books I have on Kindle as physical dead trees.

It’s mad isn’t it?!

Now don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is a fantastic piece of kit, and my Kindle is one of the rare pieces of technology I own that I truly love unconditionally. The eInk display is pretty much paper-like, without the glare of a backlit LCD that is objectively bad for your eyes. Indeed, the eInk is legitimately better paper than paper – features such as dynamic text size, font choice, and even context info and inline dictionary definitions for those tricky words make it objectively more capable than paper.

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A Kindle can contain hundreds of books and not weigh the same as a small car. The battery lasts forever – even on my ancient Kindle 4. It fits in a bag very easily and  the latest Paperwhite versions can even be read in the dark. But the Kindle remains a technological item in that it does run out of battery, it is reliant on WiFi and these niggles can break the experience of reading that a paperback – or other physical book – simply doesn’t need to worry about.

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Largely I’ve found that Kindle books aren’t that much of a saving on traditional paperbacks, so the cost savings are modest. Taking into account, as of time of writing, three popular books sourced from the Top 50 Fiction on amazon.co.uk:

  • The Testaments by Margaret Attwood – Kindle £9.99; Hardback £10 Saving: 0.1%
  • The Holiday by TM Logan – Kindle £2.60; Paperback £6.60 Saving 87%
  • Echo Burning by Lee Child – Kindle £1.99; Paperback £7.99 Saving 75%

I’ve also drilled down into the Top 100 Sci-Fi Fiction:

  • Artemis by Andy Weir – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £8.96 Saving 45%
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson – Kindle £5.99; Paperback £6.87 Saving 13%

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Already it could be said that the potential savings are considerable with a few exceptions; surely savings upward of 33% could be worth the downfalls of the format that I’ll touch on soon. It’s important also to note that there’s a few important caveats on that quick comparison: quite a few of the paperbacks are not discounted; the Kindle editions quite frequently are, heavily so. I’ve been able to find a great deal of mainstream chart books, for instance, the Lee Child Jack Reacher novels, significantly cheaper in physical format outside of traditional bookshops (think: supermarkets). This phenomenon was reflected in a couple of examples that I located of high-profile books being cheaper in paperback than Kindle, or more commonly, where the saving on Kindle was not significant:

  • Killing Floor by Jack Reacher – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £4.50 Expense 10%
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £5.99 Saving 17%

Of course it would be facile of me to disregard totally the trend for ebooks to be cheaper; it’s not a hard and fast rule, but a general trend, and it depends totally upon publisher and offer time. And those savings come at a price nonetheless, it just may not be monetary.

One of the things I’ve found refreshing about my own personal paperback renaissance is the sense that I am owning my books. With Kindle and other ebook platforms, you simply own a licence to access the content via the vendor in question’s storefront or platform – and your books are only readable on that specific platform due to DRM (though there’s millions of free ebook files to be found). Amazon’s infamous instance of remotely deleting 1984 from people’s Kindles is a tart example of the fallacy in this model, arguably. And indeed, what happens if the obscure format becomes unsupported?

And there’s something wholesome and comforting about perusing the shelves of a bookshop and taking punts on recommendations left by the staff, who all love reading themselves. Indeed, some of my favourite reads recently have been ones I’ve taken a punt on after spying a book in a bookshop – Feed by Mira Grant and The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh are two notable recent ones I thoroughly enjoyed.

The fuzziest reason I’ve gone back to physical books is the sheer experience. The feeling, the smell and the sensation of looking at a dead tree with some ink and hallucinating is really rather magical. Quite often when I do use my Kindle these days I have to think if I remembered to charge it recently, whether it was still connected to my WiFi, or whether I’d sent the document I wanted to read on it… with a paperback book I’ve found there’s none of those considerations – one just sits down and opens the book. While over time I have adjusted to a largely digital world and workflow – lord knows, I’d love a typewriter, for romantic reasons; my productivity would crater however – there’s something about the simplicity that comes from an analogue experience that just flows better for me. Again it’s fuzzy, sentimental reasoning, and I have no grudge or ill will towards those who live for their eReaders, but reading should always be a comfortable, personal experience and these days I’m content to bury my head in a well-presented paperback.

But the whole precis of this discussion is that I simply don’t much enjoy the Kindle experience, and that’s a shame – as I recognise the benefits of the Kindle: features like X-ray, the ability to store hundreds, even thousands of books, adjustable text size, font and margins… but it just comes across as a little soulless. So much so that I’m honestly deciding whether to start re-buying my Kindle purchases as paperbacks, a process I’ve already started with the likes of The Fog by James Herbert and One by Conrad Williams. But also series I want to rediscover – I recall reading a fair number of the Lincoln Rhyme books by Jeffrey Deaver and in a weird way they seem less accessible on my Kindle!

I’d be interested to see what people think in the comments! Get to it!

Stock photos by by Caio Resende and Stanislav Kondratiev on Pexels.com; Waterstones Piccadilly (London) from Havwoods.co.uk

Amazon prices correct as of 14th September 2019

Website Update

It’s definitely time for another update! Today I’m going to talk about a couple of projects that are resurgent on the boil once again and that I am really looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into!

This also serves as a good way of checking my own progress in a way so I aim to make these Website Update posts a lot more regularly – though I’d suspect I’ve said this before!

Without any further ado let’s get into what I’m working on currently:

20180706_140550186_iOSThe Thaw – Next Edit

I’m really pleased that this past week I’ve finally bitten the bullet and started on the next edit of my post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw. I last updated the blog regarding this project over a year ago and, by my own admission, it’s sat on my shelf for that time, though some very lovely friends have offered me some great feedback.

I recently, in fact, had a writer-y online call with my good friend and fellow Kingston creative writing alumni Rosie and it really helped me get into my head not only the overall changes I needed to make – she’d sent me some great answers to a feedback questionnaire I’d designed – but also, crucially in my view, how to make a start on the first few chapters. I’d honestly procrastinated because I didn’t know in a way where to even begin but I’ve made a great start on the next edit!

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I do have a variety of exciting plans – I don’t actually intend on doing another self-edit because I feel over-editing it myself is only going to expend time and result in tweaks. I need to bite the big bullet and send this work off to a professional editor, which I intend to do over the autumn for a potential submission to agents – yes, actual agents for publishers – in the new year.

I’ve been building a new writing space at home but while that’s been under construction I’ve tried sincerely to use my local library as a good writing space. It’s really helped me focus, which is very good. It’s definitely a topic I want to dive into more in-depth very soon – I also perused the non-fiction literature section and am working through a couple of books that I borrowed to see if they help me out and already some of the tips I’ve picked up are really paying dividends!

Doctor Who fan-film

IMG_27312_800pxSince 2017 I’ve been working with my friends Mark and Gary on a 25-minute Doctor Who fan-film titled Reverence of the Daleks, with myself acting as Producer and Writer. It’s been a great experience and after a couple of “soft” screenings we’re preparing the film, based on some feedback, for a general online release.

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I’m quite heavily involved at the moment in preparing what we’re calling the Producer’s Cut of the film – working on picture grade, music and tweaking some of the VFX based on the feedback we’ve had so far to form the “final”, ultimate edition of the film.

My friend Mark works as a Media Technician at Esher College in Surrey and every year he puts on a Film Evening of films he and his friends, colleagues and even students have contributed to, and Reverence is going to be the headline event of this year’s Evening, hopefully coming to a venue near you (if you live in South West London!) toward the end of September or October.

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It’s refreshing to be nearly done with this project as it’s taken up a lot of my creative energy, especially when preparing for the first showing – editing the film up until 12:30AM the night before! I’ve tons of other gestating ideas so it’ll be great in a way to have this piece as a bit of an advert for my skills film-wise moving forward.

Other projects at the stage of “worth mentioning”:

  • I’m working on at least one more post in my BookThoughts series from a while ago, so stay tuned on that!
  • I want to start working on some new short stories, including one I’d actually hoped to have done for the festive season last year! I’ve three or four skeletal ideas that I feel merit development!
  • I may be delving into the archives to update (and tidy) my Short Stories section with work from university!