Articles, Writing

Trying (and Failing) to Write A Seasonal Short

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Twice I have had ambitions of writing a short story to publish in time for Halloween. Twice I have failed. The first real attempt was at what became Growing Storm – a story I’m mightily proud of. The second is of a new story I have given the working title of Nightmare Tenant – which I will discuss more in this post.

Firstly, let’s discuss the main reasons why I’ve let the deadline of October 31st come and go without getting the stories out when I wanted to:

With both Growing Storm and now with Nightmare Tenant, I’ve found myself brimming with story ideas, so much so that I’ve not been able to hammer these into a cohesive story in time. With Growing Storm, some personal circumstances precluded me from committing to the writing time needed to get the story finished – let alone edited – in time for this deadline that I had set myself.

My new work, Nightmare Tenant, is even worse in that regard – I’ve been overhauling how I plan out my stories of late and I’d initially come up with enough raw story for Nightmare Tenant to fill a novel; the original plan had been to write a 10-12,000 word short story for the spooky deadline. However, I found out that the story beat sheet that I had been using to plan this story was indeed intended for a novel-length project, and trying to scale that back was difficult after having come up with some great story ideas. Indeed, even during the writing process, the story has taken on a few wandering plotlines that I couldn’t have anticipated – it’s now takes on some soap opera elements with a pretty juicy horror idea – so much so that I’ve decided to expand the wordcount to a 33,000 word novella.

This experience was compounded by my participation in Kent Shawn’s short story contest where my piece – a post-apoc psychological thriller, Left Outside – had far too much story for its limited 5,000 word limit and I think it suffered in a way because of that. With Nightmare Tenant, I have the flexibility of being able to change the word count as I see fit; quickly I realised this project was not going to fit into 12,500 words so I decided to go hell-for-leather and make it a novella. This has already in the writing process made me feel a lot more comfortable – there’s plenty to edit but there’s breathing space to get some cool – and I hope spooky – ideas down!

Both projects, it’s important to note – were great fun to write, regardless of seeing my initial deadline come and go.

If I were to think critically, I would need to identify the need to put the work out for Halloween in about August, to give myself ample time to plan, draft and edit the work. But it’s difficult to visualise the cold October nights in the summer hence I tend to have the light-bulb moment in mid-September which isn’t really long enough.

This year I’ve learned a lot about my process and while I feel reinvigorated, I want to always present high-quality work. So for Nightmare Tenant, as I did with Growing Storm last year, I am going to implement some kind of feedback or beta-reading system; possibly less sophisticated than the one I have just undertaken for The Thaw (which is a 105,000 word novel, so a different proposition entirely). This also takes time – the lesson here, don’t just aim to plan the workpiece, but plan your time around a deadline you have in mind.

But is the “failure” to get these pieces out by a fairly arbitrary deadline really a failure at all? I think not – the pieces in question have turned out to be some of my favourites. I can’t wait to talk all about Nightmare Tenant as it’s been a project that has become some sort of morphing alien in terms of the story but the core idea is one I am very fond of and am thoroughly enjoying developing. These goals are more guidelines, a kick up the behind to get me writing and in that sense they’ve been successful. I just need to be more accountable to my own deadlines, not ones picked off the calendar!

And no, Christmas is not a season I’m planning anything fictional for!

Articles, Writing

Workflow: Perfecting My Digital Toolkit

One of my firm beliefs when it comes to writing is that an organised writer can be a productive writer. Long ago, authors crafted their work with quills, pencils and typewriters. But in 2020, writing in any serious sense means using digital tools – today I’m going to discuss my setup and how it works for me.

Writing

I use two main applications for doing actual writing in: Microsoft Word and Scrivener.

I use Microsoft Word for shorter pieces as I feel it’s better suited to linear works by merit of its design. Word is agile, lightweight and it’s an industry standard – especially when it comes to editing my work down the line.

For longer pieces (novels, for instance) I exclusively draft in Scrivener. I feel Scrivener has generated a mystique about it in the writing community – it’s revered in the community, for good reason, but it’s also approached by some with appreciable trepidation as it’s so feature-rich. That said this daunting learning curve is largely abated by Scrivener being akin to an onion – it  has layers, and you can dig down as far as you choose to without “missing out”. The core features I use for initial drafts is the non-linear, compartmentalised structure you can give to a project (with the ability to drag and drop large passages quite easily) and the outlining tools, which can take the form of a traditional corkboard – though you can change the theme for a less skeumorphic outliner. Both are effective tools.

When I write in Scrivener, I exclusively write in the full-screen “distraction-free” writing environment which is fully customisable. For a long time I would write in green text on a black background, harking back to the old days of text-based terminals; however now my colour scheme is a soothing white-on-blue akin to the old Wordstar program of the 1990s. I did briefly dabble in the old-school green-on-black, but I find white on blue is the easiest on my eyes (a sea of white can be quite dazzling). Scrivener has that flexibility to have whatever colour – or picture – as your background as you like! Find something that fits your mood, or your project, and it’ll blot out the multitude of distractions! (This is also why I write with the live word count at the bottom of the screen turned resolutely off!)

It’s important to note also that for me, Word and Scrivener co-exist; it’s important to pick not only the right tool to start the job but the right tool to finish it, too. For instance my 105k word novel The Thaw was drafted in Scrivener but edited in Word – mainly as Word has those industry-standard features (such as Track Changes) which make it better suited for editing than I feel Scrivener is.

That is not to say that the Word/Scrivener duopoly is the only way to go: indeed, writing can be done in pretty much any program that allows the inputting of text. Common solutions I can’t ignore (but do not use for reasons I will expand upon) include Google Docs and even the basics such as Windows WordPad, and whatever the Mac equivalent is! And there’s plenty of free, open-source variants of Office that work just as well!

Planning and Organisation

Keeping my ideas organised has in recent times become paramount in importance, almost moreso than the actual act of getting words down on the page.

My first tip would be to keep your notes organised in a central place that is accessible everywhere, as you want to be able to find that idea, or fragment, or name at as little notice as possible. To that end I employ Microsoft OneNote for this task – I have a master Writing notebook which houses all my ideas – projects get their own sections, with subsections and subpages making up the structure under that.

The beauty of this is that it’s so easy to move things, everything is catalogued and searchable and OneNote provides a wonderful freeform environment to throw ideas  – links, documents, photos, even sounds or other media – into a place for storage and later perusal and categorisation.

I supplement this, especially recently, with maintaining a variety of spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel. I’ve recently become enlightened to just how powerful spreadsheets can be in laying down outlines and adding some much-needed structure to the chaos of creativity.

Keeping it synced

I’d be remiss in 2020 to not advise to store your writing on the cloud. For a long time in my youth I’d travel between my parents’ carrying a litany of USB drives with various things I wanted to be able to access to. Indeed, those that know me from my sixth form days may recall I lost a USB full of coursework weeks before the end of term, disaster!

In my previous sections I’ve talked a lot about my reliance on traditional desktop programs – I do all my writing on Windows PCs. I have largely – and conspicuously – ignored web-first (or indeed, web-only) solutions such as Google Docs.

The reason being for this snub is that I believe my solution marries the best of both worlds – I use well-made, mature apps that I can rely on whether I am offline or online. I have an annual subscription to Microsoft 365 which allows me access to the “full-fat” desktop versions of Word, Excel et al but crucially allows me 1Tb of OneDrive cloud storage which I use heavily – this I believe is worth the price of admission alone.

A while back I wrote about switching from Dropbox – a popular and still-completely-valid choice for cloud backup – to OneDrive. The reason I did this was for the tight integration into the Microsoft Office suite – it adds Google Docs-like instant autosave but without losing that ability to work locally. It also allows me to access my documents in any app on any platform – so I can access my notes on my iPad or iPhone, or even from any web browser, but without compromising that desktop experience I enjoy and appreciate.

Tying your desktop experience to a decent cloud service behind the scenes makes the best of both worlds – you can work offline if need be while maintaining not only the flexibility to take your work everywhere thanks to the magic of the cloud but also the peace of mind knowing your work is saved – and most reputable cloud services have some kind of version control built in so you can always go back!

The key thing with using a cloud service – be it Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive or any other – is to have the client on your computer and to put your project folder and files you are working on directly into your sync folder. That way, changes are monitored automatically and saved as soon as you click Save – again for that peace of mind.

Whatever software you end up using, the most important thing is to make sure your workflow works for you – anything that impedes your workflow should be changed and you’ll whizz through the words in no time! My advice here is borne of years of tweaking, learning and experimenting but you don’t have to go to such advanced or intricate levels as I have, just get writing!

Articles, Online Wanderings

Workflow: Switching from Dropbox to OneDrive

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I thought it might be interesting to chat today about why I’ve made a pretty big (but hopefully seamless) change in how I carry out work. I’ve been using Dropbox as a file-storage and backup system (indeed, all my important project files are live on my Dropbox for seamless syncing and backup) but I’ve been pretty limited by the 5Gb limit my Dropbox account has.

I’ve used Microsoft’s email service, Outlook.com, since before it was even Outlook; I finally switched to an ISP-agnostic email in 2009 with Live Hotmail – who remembers that? A bonus of this loyalty on the basis of having an account that long was that I qualified for an upgrade to the storage capacity of my email’s associated OneDrive (back when it was SkyDrive) to 25Gb.

25Gb… 5Gb… can you see the immediate comparisons?

But I have only recently made the step to move my writing projects to OneDrive. There was more behind my decision than just the voluminous amount of free cloud storage that I had been ignoring for the most part!

As part of my Creative Writing course at Kingston University I have been granted access to Microsoft’s Office 365 subscription service for free. Having used this for three years now I’m pretty much a convert to this way of getting Office – I get useful new features fairly regularly but the key feature for me is adaptability:

  • autosaveOffice 365 allows me to legitimately own Office and use it concurrently on more than just my main PC but also my ThinkPad laptop, my iPhone and my iPad; the latter two require Office 365 to allow document editing on the go.
  • I recently received updates to the versions of Office 2016 that I have installed on my two PCs and there was one feature that pushed me over the edge to finally switch to OneDrive: AutoSave.

AutoSave in Word (and other Office programs, but Word is my mainstay) has changed how I work quite profoundly, and I’m now a lot more flexible in how I work as changes to documents are synced in real-time without any user intervention, so I can switch from my PC to my laptop to my iPad with so much ease the transition doesn’t even need thinking about. Dropbox, while very good with syncing, just doesn’t quite have the baked-in integration that allows total flexibility – I’d always need to hit Control + S and leave it a couple of seconds to sync. Even little things, like the syncing of my Recently Used document lists in the Word 2016 backstage view just give the impression of a tightly-integrated solution which saves on wasting valuable seconds. They add up!

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I’ve also found that the significant bump in available storage space allows me finally to back up my Camera Roll from my iPhone as iCloud has a similar, restrictive “free” storage allocation which isn’t really suitable for people who have owned an iPhone for a while, or have a high-capacity iPhone like I do (my current iPhone 6S is a 64Gb model as 5 years of a 16Gb iPhone 4S became… fun to say the least!). It’s a pretty seamless process – and being seamless is precisely why I’m enjoying the transition to OneDrive as it’s not as much “effort” as I was expecting!

Obviously this new-found convenience comes at some abstract cost – my privacy, arguably. There’s been stories about an update to Microsoft’s terms of service that on face value seem quite severe – swearing or profanity no longer “allowed in Office 365 documents”, but this isn’t something that concerns me deeply. I’d have to be a paid-up member of the tin-foil-hat brigade to buy into that being a valid and pertinent threat to myself on a personal level, and besides, Microsoft’s service is free and providing great convenience. The fear of “everything I upload being scanned” just seems a bit far-fetched, and with recent revelations about companies like Facebook and Google (the latter coming as no surprise) it’s almost to be expected. My data is gloriously uninteresting anyway.

At the moment I’ve just moved my critical writing folders to OneDrive and my camera roll but I’m evaluating at the moment, once the pressures of University work are over with, whether to migrate a lot more of my local documents and photos folders. Considering that a few years ago I was quite dead-set against the idea of “cloud syncing” (when I only used one computer at a time, and ferried USB drives everywhere, which are risky if lost) but I’ve totally turned a corner. Certainly when my University-provided Office 365 expires I will be looking to buy my own plan (it’s not unaffordable; around £80 a year or so) for my future endeavours. That bump from an already capacious 25Gb to 1Tb would alleviate my storage frugality concerns too!

Overall though, I’m pleasantly happy with the OneDrive experience as it fits into my workflow even better than Dropbox did – and I had no real issues with Dropbox’s integration! But the very tight fit that OneDrive provides to the other Microsoft products I use – Office and Windows – and their recent embracing of alternate mobile platforms after seeing the light that Windows Phone was doomed to irrelevance means that it provides an even-tighter integration for my workflow and, ultimately, a more productive me. And that’s all good!