Creative Writing in Your Lunchtime

20190605_153747887_iOSI’ve generally been trying to use my local library – Sutton Central Library – more as a workspace that inspires concentration as one of the worst traits I know I have is that I procrastinate like mad at home. Over the weekend I spotted a poster in the lift for an upcoming series of free creative writing workshops taking place over the summer. Intrigued, I signed up, and went along with Gary Thomas. The inaugural session took place on a couple of days ago.

I had previously attended a creative writing-themed session at Sutton Library some time ago, talking about self-publishing, which I still maintain an intrigue toward, despite my plans for my work-in-progress novel The Thaw to be traditionally published. That session was a bit of a let down as the speaker didn’t seem to have much faith in the aspects of self-publishing that I, certainly, held most interest in – their work was self-funded and the lack of an expression of faith in editors, or any discussion of online marketing, left me leaving underwhelmed.

Nevertheless I approached this new session open-minded. And I was pleasantly surprised! Walking away I was feeling, honestly, quite reinvigorated. It was a casual affair that took place in the library’s new Family Lounge and was hosted by Sutton Library’s writer-in-residence Rachel Sambrooks. We had a good group chat discussing why we write and that writing can be, and indeed is, an extension of ourselves. The conversation was good – there was a decent turnout of a diverse range of writers – from myself and Gary who are fairly experienced at the craft to people who’d read but never written.

I applaud them for having the courage, frankly, to come along as it can be daunting, even to someone like me, to face a group of people when it comes to one’s writing. Also in attendance was vlogger Aridja Kals – who came a fair distance to attend! – who made some great points in the discussion that Rachel led that we shouldn’t be afraid to fail at creative endeavours. The theme of the first workshop was based around a quote from Bennie Brown: that the search for instant perfection is the enemy of innovation. I definitely agree that that feeling is a barrier to writing that people seem to unfairly place upon themselves – there’s an expectation with creativity that things will emerge from the forge of one’s imagination perfectly formed, when it’s really not the case, and it’s absolutely fine! It’s so important to not reject one’s work off-hand and I was glad that was one of the first things Rachel imparted upon us – I certainly appreciated the refresher! But also I feel it was a good piece of advice to perhaps “mythbust” the craft of writing to those that might feel daunted at the prospect!

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Aridja made a good point in the discussion that it might be useful to see the word “fail” as a retroactive acronym for First Attempt At Learning. I agree and Rachel made an important point that “failure” is perhaps not the best term for attempting something – which to some in the group proved totally new – and realising that a particular piece isn’t working. We as writers need to be willing to throw an idea against the wall to see if it sticks in order to create and develop from that.

From my own perspective as a writer I feel that’s really key, and I was pleased that this was discussed at the workshop. Sometimes it’s too easy to psyche oneself out of writing, especially if it’s either outside of their comfort zone or a totally new endeavour – but I try to counter that in my own mind by reminding myself nothing ventured, nothing gained. And it’s an important tool in all aspects of learning to attempt new things and then identify weaknesses and strengths and work on those areas. Sometimes a story or a piece of writing just won’t execute well and that’s fine; it doesn’t all boil down just to skill – identifying that a piece didn’t work is a skill in itself.

It was also good fun to have a go at a few writing exercises. Based on the earlier theme of “failure”, Rachel asked us to come up with a list of ten “failures” that might happen in life – an exercise that I found surprisingly difficult on the hoof! We used these scenarios to then have a go at some free writing – again, something I’ve not done since my university days! I was refreshed to see how quickly the words ended up flowing, and when the time was up I did want to continue!

We were urged to not necessarily rely on laptops for writing. I’d brought mine but had also packed a notebook and pen, almost foreseeing this. Writing freehand did feel a bit more personal and artistic, as if the words flowed in a purer sense through into my scrawl. It was definitely refreshing, even if my wrists were a little sore! I’m buoyed by what I had written and I may even continue it! Certainly the session reaffirmed in my mind that it’s fine to write pieces just for practise and not all pieces need be ones to submit or get out there. Writers need practise too – and if good ideas result from that practise, all the better.

20190603_125024187_iOSThe session ended with a game of lateral thinking that I found more useful than I’d otherwise expected – word association. Initially we started with a group effort but split into individual attempts and I found it a refreshing challenge – the most challenging part of both exercises being the plucking of ideas and snippets from thin air, though I will persevere! It’s a useful and key skill to keep supple in my writer’s arsenal.

Honestly on reflection now I found the exercises hard as it does tap into that ethereal ability to conjure ideas on the hoof out of thin air. This is always the hardest, but arguably most rewarding part of writing I find, and I appreciated having to stretch myself!

I was certainly glad that I went to the session at the end of it – it reminded me very positively of my university days where my peer group would workshop ideas together. Those were arguably the most valuable sessions from university. I’m definitely going to keep going to these sessions at my local library – they’re free and it’s no real trouble to get to, and it’s nice to be surrounded by like-minded writers again! Excited for next week now!

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Mech-ing a Comeback

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I’ve recently been quite privileged to have been invited into an exclusive group of people testing out a new incarnation of StoryMechs, which my good friend Sam Richards previously ran as Tweet RPG back in the heady, halcyon days of Twitter in 2012 – the days with 140 character tweets and before GIFs and Emojis. A simpler time!

StoryMechs – and its predecessor, Tweet RPG – are a really innovative new spin on the choose-your-own-adventure story, utilising the utility and convenience that technology allows to really allow for dynamic stories. I have fond memories on playing some of the early Tweet RPG stories, and indeed met some cool people I still talk to regularly today.

I’ve previously written about StoryMechs when it was brand new – but alas, this came at a bit of a busy time for Sam so the project’s been dormant for a long time; however it was great to hear from him about re-energising the project for new stories. He’s got some really solid ideas and I’m eager to see how they develop.

So, very recently Sam invited me and some others as part of the StoryMechs Focus Group to participate in a brief new adventure to test out the waters. This was a good idea; Sam by his own admission hadn’t run something like this for some time, and considering his plans for the future, this was wise. The week-long adventure, My Valentine, was good fun, so Sam should be reassured that his ability hasn’t waned in the interim.

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My experience in the focus group did, however, get me thinking: previously, I think Tweet RPG was almost ahead of its time, existing in a time before Twitter polls and Facebook feeds. I can only imagine how much admin this would’ve added; indeed, now with these features extant on platforms like Facebook and Twitter it makes both the playing of the game a simpler process and I can only imagine how much easier it makes the game to administrate behind the scenes, so it’s a win-win in terms of infrastructure.

However Sam brought up an interesting point in the group chat – that as players using Facebook for a platform, we seemed less willing to add our own spin on our choices – in the old format, where votes and decisions were made through hashtag, it would be accompanied usually by the player’s own comments or point-of-view; with Facebook separating the voting and the comments quite distinctly, it’s almost harder to do that organically; however I feel that wherever there’s a comments field, players will find a way to put in their own spin on what’s happening.

But on reflection, also, I felt there wasn’t as much need – in the case of the mini-adventure Sam ran to test the new format out, cyberpunk yarn My Valentine – to add my own commentary as I think that certainly Sam’s writing has become more filled out and he’s clearly given the story a lot of thought in each permutation. My strategy in the focus group, in my mind, was not only to test out the infrastructure of using a Facebook group to run the game but also in a way to test how Sam’s writing had evolved. I was pleasantly surprised and I feel his work remains strong and enjoyable.

Sam plans to run forthcoming stories using Patreon as a platform for players to reward and incentivise his work, which I feel is an excellent idea. I was pleased to become Sam’s first official patron; I’m more than happy to support him as a fellow writer and friend in developing StoryMechs. Overall it’s a really innovative spin on a classic form of storytelling that I can tell Sam is a natural fan of, and it’s an intriguing and engaging spin using new technology. We’re all prone to mindlessly scrolling on social media so why not add in the opportunity to engage in something truly fun with the medium!

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I do however identify some areas I feel that need addressing or considering going forward. I think there’s a genuine market for compilations of completed adventures – even some of the legacy Tweet RPG stories too – to perhaps be sold under the StoryMechs brand; perhaps including author’s notes for a more behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the story? Certainly there’s scope to create wide-ranging universes to tell multiple stories within; the key there would be keeping these worlds malleable – multiple adventures spanning different genres would give StoryMechs a broad appeal to a variety of fiction fans. Sam’s writing is strong and I think StoryMechs is a great vehicle for him to get his narratives out there through an innovative and imaginative medium.

I’d also recommend that Sam look into setting up a StoryMechs website that is platform-agnostic where players are able to sign up, read some of the reviews or previous adventures and learn about the system and story behind StoryMechs before jumping into an adventure through Facebook. At this early stage I realise that Sam is going to have to rely on Facebook or Twitter for infrastructure but the sky’s the limit, though how he combines those two distinct social networks is going to be interesting; we all know people who “aren’t on Facebook” (and likewise with Twitter) so I think Sam needs to be resolute in which platform he chooses to use. My personal view is that Facebook’s near-ubiquity and utility make it an obvious choice.

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Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Sam in real life at an event (more on that in a future post!) and it was great to finally put a face to the name I’d known on Twitter for some considerable time. His enthusiasm for what he wants to now do with StoryMechs. I’d strongly suggest that if you’re into interactive fiction you give StoryMechs a good look. It’s so refreshing to see a writer in his element, and innovating in telling stories he’s clearly passionate about, and is passionate in sharing. I’m certainly feeling pretty inspired! For more information follow the StoryMechs Twitter and Sam Richard’s personal page now!

Notes on NaNoWriMo

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November beckons! For a lot of writers this means one thing – not the onset of festivities for Christmas but NaNoWriMo– the month-long celebration of stress and angst that’s been going for quite a while now, the challenge being to write a 50,000 word novel (well, more realistically, the very rough first draft) in the space of thirty days in the depths of winter. I haven’t taked about NaNoWriMo for a long time but feel it’s about time to address it once more!

My good friend and university classmate Rosie is embarking on her second NaNoWriMo this year – it’ll be really exciting to see how her accumulated knowledge through university improves her effort from her previous attempt in 2015!

I’ve completed NaNoWriMo three times, most recently in 2012. The three novels I wrote – 2010’s The Last of the Steamers, a steampunk adventure story; 2011’s Colonisation, a pulpy sci-fi adventure set on Mars that I’ve toyed with rewriting and 2012’s The World Eaters, an attempt at a grand space opera – will very likely never see the light of day. But that’s OK – each were valuable learning experiences in my writing journey that I’m definitely proud of doing and still reflect upon now. Yes these works, looking at them now, are flawed and imperfect but they remain important to me – so much so I keep the manuscripts even now.

20181105_131218380_iOS_editedLooking back, I’d reflect upon the following nuggets of information:

  • Plan, plan, plan! Spend at least the month of October prior to NaNoWriMo outlining the work and getting the sequence of events, at the very least, set down in your mind. Writing as you go, or “pantsing” (ie: writing by the seat of your pants) is the number one reason why your novel will run out of steam within the first few pages. It’s too easy, especially for inexperienced writers who may have never handled a project as big as a 50,000 word novel (which, by the way, is nothing; my draft of The Thaw is sitting at just over double that, at 102,000 words) to just blurt out the entirety of their plotlines very early on without any structure. I’m currently working on some new plot outlines as I mentioned previously and I’m using KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel workbook and it’s really, really good.
  • Chapterise your work. For my initial, first-ever effort, The Last of the Steamers, I wrote the entire novel as one solid block of text without chapter breaks. I attempted to revise this work the following January and it became such an arduous slog it quickly became completely unmanageable. Planning your chapters is a great way to spread out points of view and plot to manage the pace of the story. Contrast this to my approach for planning The Thaw, where I split the outline into three acts, and then further subdivided those acts themselves into three (beginning, middle and end at it’s most basic) and spread out the plot and series of events that way. For that work, too, I took on a really effective lesson from the books in The Expanse series in using different points of view for each chapter.
  • Don’t worry about the wordcount goal per day. To succeed at NaNoWriMo you have to write an average of 1,666 words per day, every day. That can sound incredibly daunting – this is especially difficult if you haven’t planned beforehand (therein leaving your time in November for pure writing). But it’s easy to become totally intimidated by writing almost 2,000 words a day. Some writers can do it but a lot, especially inexperienced novelists that take the NaNoWriMo gauntlet, balk at this. So my advice here would be to split up your time – write in, say, three 500 word sessions and then add a bit on here and there. 500 words is about a page, and quite manageable in 20 minutes if you get time.
  • Find times to write everywhere in your day. Building on the previous point, finding time to sit in a darkened study, hunched over a laptop, for the daily writing session can (and in my case has) put a ton of pressure on. It’s so, so easy to psyche yourself out of a writing session if you build it up so much. So my advice would be to split this up. My personal experience is that 500 words is quite manageable in a single session, but you could write a paragraph just before breakfast, a few paragraphs over lunch or before class or at work… it’s a cumulative effort toward that goal that really counts. Or meet up in the library with friends and write together, it’s fun!Nano_2011_chart
  • Don’t freak out over falling behind. In 2011 I fell quite far behind, but it’s important to remain committed and realise that it’s possible to claw back the progress. I found the spreadsheet I used (slightly customised from the one designed by Erik Benson in 2004 which I found you can get from Book In A Week here) back then and looked at the chart. Ultimately for the first week or so I feel fairly behind but ended up that year finishing a day early, which I’d say is proof that it’s possible to claw it back. As an aside, the spreadsheet I used included notes for each day that I input and it was fairly prescient on how I was thinking and feeling during November 2011! I’d wholeheartedly suggest using a spreadsheet like this – sync it with Google Docs or OneDrive or Dropbox (along with your draft, obviously!) so it’s always there when you need it. Naturally the inverse is true with this tip: by all means build up some headroom on good days if you can but don’t allow yourself to become complacent!

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What prompted me to write this post was a question I was asked regarding one of the new ideas I wrote about previously – would I be doing any of them for NaNoWriMo this year? God no! was the answer –  honestly, I don’t think I’d do NaNoWriMo again. My experience writing The Thaw was that a month would’ve been too rushed to do that justice – you’re only making yourself more work in the first, usually-brutal edit. But also with The Thaw I feel I took too long. Ideally for my new ideas I’d follow Stephen King’s advice:

“The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

That’s not to say I discourage NaNoWriMo – indeed, the opposite! I saw it as an important step in my writing career as I proved to myself (and others, but most importantly myself) that I could write a work long enough to consider a novel. And while the three drafts I churned out remain locked away for only my eyes to cringe at, they’re important milestones on the road of writing. So get going and get novelling!

Autumn Writing Update

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I realise it’s high time I take stock of where I am with various writing projects I’ve been working on – and some new ones! I also want to expand on a lot of what I want to start thinking about progressing with next year – it seems customary with the nights drawing in as October grows to a close to reflect not on what can be done with the dregs of this year but to plan for the new year.

Overall, I’m both pleased and a little disappointed with progress with my writing projects but I feel a touch of realism is sometimes what’s needed!

  • Landlady_Cover_MockUpI’m thoroughly thrilled with how my short story The Landlady has gone down since I put it out last month. I’m really grateful to everyone who both read it and bought the little paperback editions that I made available for purchase; it was a really touching and humbling thing to have signed so many of them for good friends and colleagues. Thank you once again for all your support and comments! And to those asking “when’s the next one coming?”… well keep reading!
  • I sent my post-apoc thriller novel The Thaw off to beta-readers in second draft form at the end of July, hoping for a relatively quick turnaround to gain some feedback on it for the next edit – it’s the third draft that I want to start approaching professional editors and agents with. However, it’s been a bit disappointing, as I mentioned in a thread on Twitter, and with Christmas closing in I can’t see my beta-readers having much time. I understand that; however, I’m excited to have received word from my good friend and university classmate Rosie that her notes and annotations are incoming! So I hope to be able to start the next pass of editing on The Thaw over Christmas; it shouldn’t be anywhere near as intense as the first pass was! Overall though I reflect on the project with a great deal of pride and I really believe the project has “legs” and I’ll be pursuing it toward publication in a traditional sense throughout the coming year!
    • Incidentally, I was very pleased to be able to complete two beta-reads of my own recently; one for Rosie’s young-adult fantasy novel Under Oath and recently for Alex Clifford’s comedy novella The Very Foreign Desk. I was more than happy to give the feedback and I look forward to seeing the improved forms of both works!

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While I might not have been actively writing or editing much for the last couple of months, that hasn’t meant I’ve not been generating ideas – in fact I’ve two ideas I feel are closest in gestation that I feel comfortable talking about them, with a couple more still only in rough concept form in my notebook.

  • As mentioned, the reaction to my short horror story The Landlady has been more than I could’ve possibly imagined, and to answer those that are asking me if I’ve more in the works… I’m happy to say yes! I’ve been concepting out an idea for a horror story that might make it to full novel proportions and that I’m going to be spending the festive season planning intensely. I do want to write more horror based on this experience but I’ve a lot of research to do on the genre, but more importantly I needed an idea. By some happy accident I had the idea last week and I think I could do well with it. I’d love to say more but it’s very rough at the moment but I’ll hope to tell more about it in the new year once I’ve nailed down the plot and plan – but work is going really well as I keep thinking about it!
  • I’ve also been concepting out a climate-based post-apocalyptic novel that I had the idea for in the recent hot weather that the UK experienced – what if the UK experienced a heatwave that never ended? This one was what I thought I’d be working on next but I found myself a little stumped in the early planning but I’ve re-evaluated my ideas and, after chatting to some writer friends, have a better idea where I can take it. I originally envisaged a pseudo-political/techno thriller but I can’t say I was massively enthused by the knots I’d have to tie in my plot to make that work effectively; instead it’s going to be a bit more of an adventure into a decimated, desertified Southern England.
  • I also want to post more short stories from my university studies and re-organise the range of short stories on my site for those dear readers who are interested in reading more of my fiction. I’m really proud of the work I produced through university (even if I wasn’t a particularly happy student) and going by how people enjoyed The Landlady then I’m more than happy to show off some of my more recent, and in my opinion, refined work.

I’m excited I’ve got lots of ideas but I’m starting to prioritise them a little – I’d initially wanted to work on the climate fiction idea first but it needs some more plotting and, honestly, it’s the horror that’s screaming out to me to write first over the next while. But regardless I’ll keep everyone updated on how these projects start to shape up, as well as how The Thaw progresses, through my site but I’d also wholeheartedly recommend liking my Facebook page and following me on Twitter and Instagram for all my writing and reading goodness!