25 November 2015 - 6:06 pm

A slow start

My underwhelming statistics to date.

My underwhelming statistics to date.

Usually, when the 1st November hits, it’s pedal to the metal, all system go, sprinting off the start line like a startled rabbit being chased by an eager puppy. As an ML, I’m part of the cheer squad, encouraging everyone to write write write. It’s all about high energy and enthusiasm.

This year hasn’t been like that for me. Oh, I’m doing my best as ML, encouraging people, cheering them on, providing stickers and applause and candy. I’m not feeling the high energy this year but I’m at least faking it fairly well for others.

The ML side of things feels like the only part I’m getting right. When it comes to my own writing, it has been a struggle.

2015 has been something of a low year for me, mostly in terms of health and energy levels, with a whole heap of work-related stress and complications. Taking a hiatus has helped and given me the breathing room I needed to get on top of things, but my writing largely stalled in the process.

So, sitting down to a blank page at midnight on 1st November was daunting. I knew roughly what I wanted to write but not exactly, and that’s usually enough for me (more planning than that is usually too much and takes the fun and impetus out of it). But it was a struggle to get started. Since then, it has continued to be a struggle to put words on the page.

I had planned to make Starwalker Book 5 my project this year, with dreams of burning through 50,000 words of the web serial and getting a nice, fat buffer for myself. I laid out the rough outline of where the story was going, re-read the last section of Book 4 to remind myself of where all my characters were and what state the ship was in, so I knew where I was picking everything up and where I was going with it. I was ready. Good to go. Right?

Getting back into the voice and flow of Starwalker has proven to be hard. Very hard. Currently, I’m over 35,000 words into NaNo, and have written only a handful of Starwalker posts. They are only ever 3,000 words each at most, so you can see how it’s not all I’m writing. I would say that, at this point, it’s less than half of what I’ve written.

Right now, I’m fighting a battle between stubbornness, discipline, fostering creativity, and not forcing writing.

I had to push to get those few posts done, far harder than I like. I’m used to pushing myself to sit down and write – through feeling tired and distracted, through wanting to goof off for a while and play games – and I know that self-discipline is really important for me to be productive (this is part of why deadlines work for me: they make me sit down and get things done). But there’s a line where forcing myself to sit down and write becomes counterproductive: the writing becomes noticeably forced and, put simply, bad.

Finding that line is not easy. To stop myself going over it, I’ve had to recognise when the words I’m putting down are not my best work and are probably going to hurt me in the long run (this is where wasteful tangents come from, and stories diving into dead ends). I’ve had to be honest with myself when it’s just not working and I’m splurging crap onto the page in the name of upping my word count. While NaNoWriMo encourages this to an extent, I generally try not to do it, mostly because it makes the editing afterwards much harder and the impetus of the story can get swamped in the random shit, making it harder to write it in the first place.

But this is NaNo (words, words!), and I’m also trying to get back into the swing of writing regularly again, and that means that I don’t want to just stop when it starts getting shitty. (I’m also, as I mentioned, really stubborn, which means I don’t give up easily.) So, I’ve tried to build momentum by switching to other projects temporarily, and returning to Starwalker for a fresh go.

On the first little diversion, I managed to finish off the second part of that naughty little project I’ve been playing with lately. It still needs a lot of editing and polish, but the first draft is done! If nothing else, I have achieved that so far.

As so often happens when I delve into a project, I have started getting ideas and inspiration for other projects. It’s like flicking a creativity switch in my brain: there is lots of light, it flickers pretty randomly, and it falls on everything, not just the thing I’m supposed to be focussing on. It’s a floodlight rather than a focussed beam. This is why I came up with the Starwalker idea when I was 2 months into a 12-month project (The Apocalypse Blog) and wound up having to delay it for nearly a year. That part of my brain is fairly indiscriminate when it is active.

This time around, the project that decided to be illuminated is Splinter Soul. I’ve got a heap of ideas for the main plot now, and a handful of elements that I know I can play with. The main character’s voice is firming up and it’s entirely possible that she’s one of the least-heroic characters I’ve ever written (which makes her a stark contrast to Starry, who is one of the most heroic-natured characters I’ve created).

So I’ve written a bunch of stuff around the start of that story and the main plot is starting to take shape. It’s currently sitting around 11,000 words, which is not a bad chunk to start off a novel. I need to start folding in the rest of the main cast soon, which means I need to work out who they all are, but I like the way it’s going. It’s a start.

Add it to the list of all the projects I have that I want to progress. Oh wait, it’s already on there! Oops.

What else have I been working on? I’ve also been tinkering away at a super-hero-themed short story, which I wound up rewriting entirely because I wanted to change the point of view and sharpen it up. That one is currently just over 8,000 words, and about halfway through the story I want to tell. It’s only supposed to be 10,000 words in total, so I’m going to have to edit it pretty ruthlessly. That’s okay, that’s the next stage. I should probably try to push it through to the end before I worry about editing it down.

But I’m determined that Starwalker is still going to be my focus this NaNoWriMo. So I’ve been going back and determinedly working through a few posts at a time. The first part of Book 5 is starting to take shape. Slowly, gradually, one step at a time.

My word count graph shows how much I’m struggling this year. For the first time in a long time, I’ve fallen below the daily target. I’ve caught up, then fallen behind again. My second attempt to catch up was brave but didn’t quite make it: that was during the overnight write-in, which happened last weekend. It was a fantastic weekend and I think it went well (more on this soon), but I struggled to focus enough to write. It took a lot more out of me than I was expecting, and I was pretty much useless for two days afterwards. On the second day, I went upstairs to write, and wound up sprawled on the bed attempting to nap instead (for those who don’t know: I don’t nap, ever. It never works for me. If I try, it’s because my body is giving me no other choice and it’s usually a sign that I’m really sick or run down.)

Today, I’m feeling much better. Rested. And excited to get writing again. I need to write about 5,000 words to catch up to target. That’s totally doable over the next few hours, if I’m lucky and can maintain some momentum.

So yes, this year’s NaNoWriMo has been more of a struggle than I was anticipating. But I still love writing. I still love meeting all those wonderful people who are sharing in this journey. I still love the ideas and the stories that spill out of it. There will be more, so much more.

And like I said, I’m stubborn. I’ll get to 50,000 words yet. Just watch me.

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10 November 2015 - 6:10 pm

Why NNWM: try something amazing

Part of the why NaNoWriMo is good for writers series.

A lot of people who come to NaNoWriMo for the first time have never written a novel before. This is something that often crops up: people of all ages stumble over the concept of NaNo and think ‘hey, I could have a go at that’.

Some of them have always wanted to write a novel. It might have been percolating at the back of their brain for years, and this is their excuse/chance to make it happen. Others come across it without the weight of that background and decide to have a go anyway.

This year, I am noticing that we’re getting several fanfic writers who have never written an original (i.e. non-fanfic) novel before, and this is their first try at that. (This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this happening, but I’ve noticed it cropping up more often this year!)

This is all great! NaNo has created a safe, supportive place for people to try something that is daunting, scary, and really big. It’s so easy to say ‘one day I’ll write a novel’; NaNo helps ‘one day’ be ‘today’, ‘now’, ‘yes’.

For some, it is a case of making time. For others, it’s a matter of confidence. Because despite some opinions, not all writers have faith in what they’re doing. We’re a self-critical lot, seldom with a good opinion about our own work or our own worth.

Striking out on your own on a scary adventure when you think you’re probably going to suck is not an easy thing to do. It’s much more comfy to stay at home and do other stuff.

Setting out on a lunatic challenge with a mob of equally insane people who don’t give a shit about how good your work is, on the other hand, is completely different. It’s not just about you any more; it’s something bigger, and you don’t have to rely purely on your own personal motivation any more. You have MLs and fellow writers to help carry you along, word count goals and word wars to push you onwards, and dare-swapping parties to help you take it all a bit less seriously (and give you inspiration when yours is flagging!).

In many ways, NaNo is breaking down barriers and opening doors to those who, for whatever reason, haven’t brought themselves to do it on their own. It doesn’t matter if it’s a long-standing wish or a sudden urge prompted by someone mentioning the idea of writing a novel: you have this amazing thing in front of you, ripe for a tasting. NaNo makes the impossible and improbable feel possible.

You’re rushed through those opened doors in a happy crowd, and it’s all good. Whatever happens, it’s all good.

Coming soon: you’re not alone

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5 November 2015 - 6:24 pm

Why NNWM: long-term gains

AKA: It helps us to understand how and where we can make time to write

Part of the why NaNoWriMo is good for writers series.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are a lot of demands for our time and it can be difficult to fit writing into it all. It’s easy to say ‘I don’t have time’. NaNoWriMo opens a door to temporarily make time, but it can be more than that, too.

It doesn’t have to be only about explaining and diverting time to write for a short period of time. Being forced to shoehorn writing time into your schedule highlights those places you could take more advantage of, and helps us to critically examine our own assumptions about what we can and can’t do in the longer term.

This means looking for tactics and tools that can be applied year-round. NaNo encourages the daily writing habit (through daily wordcount goals, etc), and it gives you an opportunity to experiment with different solutions. Some of them are short-lived only (for example, I now take a lot of my annual leave from work during November), but others can be expanded into long-term habits.

This is where the annual writing challenge helped me greatly. Having to juggle NaNo (and MLing) and a full-time job meant that I had to be critical of my schedule in different ways in order to get everything achieved. I tried a few alternative ways to achieve my wordcounts – filling up my evenings rather than spending time with the family, binge-writing on the weekends and at write-ins to catch up, squeezing writing in to every moment of the day when my hands were idle, and so on – and eventually I discovered those pockets of time that I wasn’t making best use of (primarily, my daily commute to and from the day job). With some tweaking, these became my year-round writing times.

It requires understanding what’s sustainable and what’s not, and sometimes making sacrifices. That’s going to vary from person to person, depending on their dedication to spinning stories and the flexibility in their schedules and commitments.

This is an area where NaNo shines a light for us, and the beam may extend far beyond November’s boundaries if we choose to tilt it that way. So use it. Find that time you never knew you had and make stories in it.

Coming soon: a wonderful opportunity

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1 November 2015 - 3:13 pm

Why NNWM: the temporary timebox of imagination

AKA: Permission to focus on your writing.

Part of the why NaNoWriMo is good for writers series.

One article writer is of the opinion that “[writers] will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not”, and she can’t be more wrong. For some writers, that is true, but like all writing advice, it’s far from universal. I wouldn’t even say that they’re in the majority. (Assuming that ‘we’ means ‘anyone’.)

The truth is that many would-be writers simply don’t know how to make it work. Our lives are very busy with a glorious mix of school, family, work, gaming, sleeping, chores, friends, commitments, TV shows, reading, health, fitness, and other extra-curricular expectations. Everyone’s demands are different.

On top of that, writing is so frequently seen (usually by our friends and family) as ‘just a hobby’, some unimportant thing that we play at sometimes. The truth is, to put any kind of decent time into our writing, we have to sacrifice something else, and there lies the rub. How do we justify the time and energy needed to write?

(It’s interesting that we have to justify it at all but, as a general rule, we do.)

It’s not an easy choice to make or explain. The way that writing speaks to us seldom makes sense to non-writers (and especially to non-readers); how do we explain that we have these awesome hallucinations that we want to partially solidify and share with others? How do we explain that we have these stories that push and pressure us to be told? How do we do this without coming across as a crazy person?

NaNoWriMo circumvents this issue. It provides a month in which a writer can say, “I’m doing this crazy-fun challenge to write a novel in a month, so I’m going to be busy for the next 4 weeks.” It’s a special event. It’s temporary, so it can be a time-out from the norm. It’s communal (a bunch of people are doing this thing) and dictated by an external party (it happens every November), both of which lend weight to why you want to a) have a go and b) do it at a set time. It’s permission to step around the usual explanation requirements and boundaries that would otherwise get in the way of writing.

This makes sense to other people in our lives; there are valid reasons for the time we’re spending on this annual challenge. They tend to accept it, to give us the leeway that the challenge demands. It’s time-limited, so we can put off chores for a little while, and have a free pass on dropping out of regular social engagements. It provides us a space in which to do this weird imaginary exercise.

It also opens the door for less serious or dedicated writers to have a go. I know many participants who only ever write during NaNo and don’t have the urge to do it any other time. This is great! Here’s a space for them to enjoy themselves. (Note: this is different to those who only write during NaNo because they struggle to be able to do it any other time.)

NaNoWriMo is an easy way to explain to others that writing is a thing you like to do, by coming with a handy, easy explanation built in.

Coming soon: It also helps writers to understand how and where writing can fit into our lives.

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30 October 2015 - 5:14 pm

Why NNWM: Permission to be bad

Part of the why NaNoWriMo is good for writers series.

NaNoWriMo says that it’s okay to write bad stuff. Loose plotting, awkward phrasing, weirdly-depicted characters, holey timelines: it’s all good, as long as you’re progressing your story and building up that lovely wordcount.

This is a sticking-point in some people’s opinions, and yes, it produces bad writing. No-one disputes that. The thing is: that’s one of the good things about NaNo.

Writers want their stories to be good. They want to share them, and want to make them the best stories they can be. This desire is good and to be encouraged, but it can also get in the way.

For some writers, this desire leads to getting stuck. Endlessly polishing the first chapter can be very tempting, but it’s also a trap that stops us from getting any further in the story. (It’s also pointless until you’ve written the whole story anyway, in most cases.)

For other writers, it stops them from ever starting. The pressure to make it the best it can be coupled with the weight of a blank page can halt a writer in their creative tracks before they’ve even started.

Having a space in which it’s okay for your writing to not be perfect, to give yourself permission to make mistakes and let them lie, is really important to some writers. It lets writers throw down a meaningless, trashy first sentence to break the seal on a blank page, so they can follow it up with more useful, story-progressing sentences. It enables them to blast past the rough bits and get through the meat of their story, even if it’s cooked unevenly. It lets them get to the end.

(As I said previously: the point of NaNoWriMo is not to write bad stories that should be immediately published. The point is to write whole stories, with the intention of going back and polishing later. They’re not supposed to stay bad writing! It’s just okay for them to start out as bad writing.)

As one author (whom I can’t remember) famously said: “I can edit a bad page, but I can’t edit a blank one.”

NaNoWriMo lets you make a lot of bad pages, from which you can edit awesome pages (if you so choose).

Coming soon: permission to focus on your writing.

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28 October 2015 - 5:28 pm

NaNoWriMo: Keep Coming Back

NaNoWriMo: yay or nay?

NaNoWriMo: yay or nay?

This year’s crazy novelling adventure is fast approaching, so attention is increasingly turning towards the challenge that I take part in every year. A little while ago, I came across an article about how writers shouldn’t bother with NaNoWriMo. It’s not a new article (it was written back in 2010), but given the points raised in it, I suspect that it’s not outdated for those who are inclined to agree. I feel the need to comment on it.

The article’s writer, Laura Miller, believes that NaNoWriMo is a waste of time and energy. I believe she is utterly wrong, but I’m not here to tear her or her piece down. It got me thinking, and when I get thinking, it often prompts me to write stuff down. So here I am, writing stuff down in response to her article.

One of the main points in Miller’s article revolves around the fact that writing crap is not only expected during NaNo, but encouraged. This leads to crappy first drafts being sent to publishers and agents, as if they are entitled to be published after making it through the NaNoWriMo crucible.

She’s not wrong about this, though it’s not a universal phenomenon (most writers know better!). Sadly, the ‘write a novel!’ message of NaNo can lead some participants to believe that that’s all there is to creating a book worth publishing. Advice for submitting novels is increasingly leaning towards not mentioning NaNo at all, because the amount of first-draft NaNo novels being submitted has given the annual challenge a bad stigma in publishing circles.

It has never been a good idea to submit your first draft anywhere. Anything less than a polished manuscript is wasting everyone’s time. This is not a new understanding and it is not likely to change.

However, it’s not like the influx of first drafts is a new phenomenon. There have always been people who think their first draft is gold. There have always been writers who think they don’t have to put in the work to polish a manuscript and who send it out regardless. NaNo might have increased the volume somewhat, but this is hardly a new problem for publishers and agents.

Also, this assumption isn’t one that NaNo promotes. The organisation goes to lengths to help writers understand what’s required to take their novel to the next stage, through its ‘What Next’ information and resources, emails it sends to participants, and so on. Admittedly, this aspect of NaNoWriMo has grown and improved over the last few years; was it present so strongly when the article was written? I have no idea. It may have actually come about in response to the stigma that NaNo novels have acquired in publishing circles.

What I find most interesting is that Miller isn’t writing this article as a writer, publisher, or agent: she’s a reader (and reviewer) of novels. So I’m a little bewildered about why she would be so negative about an issue that would never land in her lap; the terrible first drafts that are sent to bother professionals would only become her problem if someone decided to publish them. Her choice to make such an issue of it in an article is curious to me. (Which is not to say that people can’t comment on things that don’t impact them directly – of course they can – I just find her choice curious. Perhaps she’s complaining on behalf of publishers and agents?)

What I find more concerning is that she appears to resent NaNoWriMo because it’s all about the writers and not about readers, as if giving to one group detracts from the other:

“It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.” (On bookstores advertising writing space for novelists during NaNo.)

This single sentence shows her bias with astonishing ease: readers are ‘selfless’ while writers are selfish and ‘commercial’. What this shows to me is that she doesn’t understand what type of writers NaNoWriMo is aimed at, or writers in general. Sure, some are hoping to be professional novelists, but the majority don’t care or can’t be bothered to even try to get published. (I say this from observing the NaNoWriMo community, particularly the local ones I have participated and led.) No-one does NaNo to be ‘commercial’.

Miller goes on to talk about how lucrative is it to sell books to writers about writing, but that’s just good business for the bookstores (and writers of said books). How is this a bad thing? Writers seeking to improve their craft to make better stories for the poor, mal-treated readers is a terrible thing to do? (Note: I’ve never heard of a writer using NaNo to write a non-fiction book about writing. It probably has happened somewhere; could that be where this came from?)

Also, an interesting viewpoint:

“NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it’s largely unnecessary.”

Miller goes on to explain why it’s unnecessary and pointless to encourage and facilitate writing, how there are too many books in the world anyway (even by authors she likes), and writers will persist at (and complain about) their craft regardless. (I’m paraphrasing: see the article for her actual words.)

To me, Miller fundamentally misunderstands what it’s like to be a writer and the value that NaNo brings to writing. She’s not a writer and, from her comments, most likely hasn’t spent time in the NaNoWriMo community. She sees only the obvious stuff from the outside: a non-profit group enthusiastically encouraging writers to write, to take up space she sees as ‘hers’ (readers’), and to produce crap.

I have a different view. I have seen how NaNo opens doors for writers. I know what NaNo has done for my writing, and I have seen the community at work. These things are why I keep coming back to NaNoWriMo, and why I put so much time, energy, and heart into it.

NaNoWriMo grows every year. Last year, over 325,000 people took part! Here in my local region, we have over 5,000 people alone, gathered up over the years. Miller quoted one famous NaNo book that made it big (Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen), but there are now over 250 books on the list of NaNo novels that have been published.

So Miller’s claims that NaNo is unnecessary for writers falls flat; if it was so unnecessary, it wouldn’t have such a strong following, growing year on year. Clearly, it is aimed at people who want to do it, people for whom it is necessary because they are not the type of writer who will persist at it anyway.

As for the complaints that it detracts from support for readers, I’m going to call bullshit on that. Readers are not a dying breed: every year, more and more books are being bought and devoured. Traditionally or self-published, it doesn’t matter: the market ebbs and flows, but literacy (judged by the total amount of books being bought) is at an all-time high. We are devouring books at an astonishing rate.

Do readers have sufficient ‘space’ dedicated to them? I’ve never noticed a problem myself, but that’s not to say there isn’t one. However, if you think the lack of reader support and events is a problem, then the solution is pretty simple: create them. That’s why I created my Creative Writing Group: I didn’t see the sort of group that I wanted to be a part of, so I made one. It’s why I do NaNoWriMo and create the events that my people and me enjoy. We already have readers’ and writers’ festivals where we share space. Having reader-centric events is something that we can do! (And people do, by creating book clubs, for example.) A lot of writer-ish events cross over into reader territory or interest as well: readings, panels, talks. So more writing events can mean more events for readers, too.

I don’t see NaNo as excluding readers; it is including writers. It certainly isn’t run in opposition to or instead of a reading event. Why are these mutually exclusive? I would fully support more events that promote reading! (I’m a writer: of course I love readers. That’s who I write for! Also, I am one!) I struggle to see why Miller feels that, in order to get the support for readers that she desires, something (NaNoWriMo) would have to be taken away from writers.

All in all, Miller’s article is an interesting look into the mind of someone squinting at NaNoWriMo from the outside (and, apparently, some distance). I’m aware that we all look like crazy people when it’s happening (no-one denies this; it’s part of NaNo’s charm), but the level of entitled disapproval in her article is still astonishing to me.

I started to write up all the things that I think NaNo does for writers as a counterpoint to Miller’s article, but it grew so long that I’ve decided to break it up into pieces and post them separately. So watch this space! I’ll be talking more about why I do NaNoWriMo and why I love what it does for writers.

Because NaNoWriMo is:

  • Permission to be bad
  • A temporary timebox of imagination
  • Making time and space to write
  • An opportunity to try something amazing
  • Not being alone
  • Proving you can do it.

Coming soon: all of the above.

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21 October 2015 - 5:23 pm

Bookseller’s holiday

The Open Book (Picture from shelf-awareness.com)

The Open Book
(Picture from shelf-awareness.com)

I came across a curious idea recently: a bookshop holiday. You spend a week or two staying in the flat over The Open Book bookshop, and part of the package is running the shop while you’re there. It’s located in rural Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town.

Crazy idea, huh? For me, it would be something of a busman’s holiday: not only do I adore books, write books, analyse books, discuss books, and write about books, I worked in a bookstore for a couple of years. And yet, it sounds tempting to me! (Maybe because I love books.)

There are many things that I love about this idea.

Showcasing the book love

This is the sort of holiday that appeals to people who love books. And let me tell you, as someone who is frequently a customer and who has worked in a chain bookstore, there’s nothing that customers appreciate more than when those working in the store clearly enjoy the subject matter.

For those customers who don’t care so much about books, we help them get what they need with the minimum of fuss (because we actually know the book with the blue cover they’re looking for). For those customers who adore books, we’re a kindred spirit and they can geek out a bit without feeling self-conscious. It’s more personal; it’s more friendly. And as the worker, it’s way more fun.

So the fact that they’re opening up working the store to those who love books? That’s a winner right there.

Support an indie bookstore

The more jaded among us (and yes, I include me in this) will be thinking ‘they’re getting people to pay to work! It should be the other way around!’. It seems like a veiled way to expoit people. But let me tell you why I think that it’s okay anyway.

First, see the section above. Are they really slaves if they adore what they’re asked to do? It’s not like it’s a hardship.

Secondly, it’s really cheap, as accommodation goes.

Also, you get to hang out with books all day. Or all evening, if you like. The hours are all up to you.

And, in an industry that is moving away from paper and bookstores, an industry in which indie bookstores are struggling, this is a really, really smart thing to do. You’re not only working at the bookstore; you’re supporting it and helping it and other stores like it stay open. (I try to buy my books from indie stores

It’s also showcasing indie bookstores as an entity. I’ve seen the link to this holiday opportunity in a couple of places online, and reactions to it not unlike mine (roughly: omg squee!). People are wondering what it would be like to run their own bookstore, and what cool places they might be to hang out in. Encouraging all of this is supporting a part of the industry that is under pressure (threat?) at the moment.

Do books your way

In running the bookshop, you’re given complete autonomy (within a very reasonable set of requirements). All they ask is that it’s open for 40 hours a week; which hours it’s open is up to you, and what you do during that time is also your choice.

You’re encouraged to be creative. Design displays, hold events, do readings. In one case, a couple play book-related music live in the store. They also encourage you to blog about it (like I said: smart!).

There are ten (!) bookshops in this particular little town (that’s why it’s Scotland’s National Book Town), and the booksellers in other stores give guests help and support with practical guidance. Newbies don’t need to worry that they won’t know what they’re doing.

Would I go?

This is a hard question. Money and opportunity are big restrictions for me at this point in my life. Energy is also an issue, and the notion of working through a break from work is pretty crazy for me.

There’s only one bed in the flat above the store, which is great for a couple, but I’m not currently part of one. I don’t know if I’d want to take this on alone (it would be so much more fun with a co-conspirator).

But, all concerns aside, I’d love to. I think it would be wonderful fun, and Scotland is pretty to explore. I’m clearly not the only one: it’s fairly well booked right through next year.

The real question is: would you?

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14 October 2015 - 5:42 pm

Review: The Heroine of the World by Tanith Lee

As a young reader, I loved Tanith Lee’s stories. I had come across her Unicorn series, which was strange and different, and quite beautiful in its own way. Her writing intrigued me.

Recently, I came across one of her adult fantasy books (that is, a book that wasn’t YA, not a raunchy-adult book), and wanted to see what it was like. I’ve heard lots of good stuff about her other work. I was curious about how different her writing was for different age ranges, and wanted to enjoy another intriguing story by her.

As it turned out, quite different. Here’s what I found.

In a nutshell

The Heroine of the World is the story of Aradia (or Ara, or several other derivations she has through the novel). A fortune teller prophesies that she will be a heroine of the world, setting her up for a great and important future. She lives through several wars, changes sides a few times, and winds up being a pawn of those in power in several different situations.

This is a story with huge potential: a rich, interesting world with politics and wars going on, and a skilful writer at the helm. Sadly, it doesn’t live up to that potential.

Star rating: 2/5


I’m going to be blunt: this is a book that doesn’t deliver on its promises. From the blurb on the back of the book and the enigmatic prophecy in the story, the reader is led to believe that Ara is important to the fate of nations, an element that can swing battles – wars, even – in and out of one’s favour, someone who can influence kings and princes.

None of this happens in the book. When reading it, I kept waiting for the ‘real’ plot to start, for Ara to move from being a young girl lost in wartorn circumstances and start being the heroine of the story (of any story). It didn’t come to pass. A lot of this is due to her character, her agency, and how it was presented and developed, so will be covered in the next section.

She does become a pawn in various power plays, but only in distant and circumstantial ways. She saves the life of a soldier who eventually helps to win a war, but this is an accidental outcome that she doesn’t discover until after it’s all done. She helps another man get into power by entering into a paper marriage, after which she promptly leaves and has nothing further to do with it. She doesn’t return to witness his rise to power, and hears about it only through the grapevine from a great distance.

At the same time, she can be a great hindrance to those around her. She ruins reputations and undermines plans, again completely by accident. She causes just as many problems as she helps solve; probably more. All of it without any agency or purpose whatsoever: she ricochets around the world like a pinball, rebounding off obstacles and careening through gates.

She isn’t what I would call a ‘heroine’ by any stretch (protagonist, yes, but that isn’t the same as being the heroine of a story) and her ‘world’-level influence is questionable. There’s as much argument for her being a villain as there is a heroine, given the outcome of her presence in most circumstances.

I was also expecting a fantasy book, but again, that wasn’t what was delivered. There is plenty of opportunity for magic and fantastical elements, but it never quite got there. (More on this in the writing section.) It is a different world with different geography, but it felt like it could have been set in medieval Europe with a few name changes (and no other changes) and the story would have spun out the same.


Ara is the crux of the book and, ultimately, its downfall for me. We see the whole story through her eyes (it’s written in first person POV), which nails us to her empty little head.

When I say ’empty’, I mean that we don’t get to see much of a character in there. The book begins when she’s 13 and her home country is invaded. She’s moved to where she will be out of the way, the city is occupied, her family all wind up dead, and she has no clue at all about what’s going on. That’s realistic for a 13-year-old (being bewildered by politics and ‘adult stuff’), but she also has no curiosity about what’s going on. She makes no attempt to gain an understanding about what’s happening in the world outside the house she’s living in, and in fact actively avoids doing so, despite being aware that it directly influences her own fate.

This, right here, is a symptom of what annoyed me so much when reading this book. I’ve seen some reviews of the book lauding it as an example of how the world happens to someone, not the other way around, and how much it sucks to be a female heroine in a fantasy novel. And while this may be true, that doesn’t make it fun to read, and this is hardly the only way to achieve those results.

A heroine to whom the world happened, who was a pawn in a game bigger than she could grasp, who was constantly disadvantaged by being female, could have also been many other things. Ara failed to be anything but those things. She’s a pale stereotype of all the ways being a female in a patriarchal society sucks, who is defined by her weaknesses, ignorance and failings, with nothing to redeem her.

She never attempts to understand the political and social tides that toss her around. She knows as much as she’s forced to know (by absolutely necessity or because it’s unavoidable). She doesn’t ever draw any real opinions about what’s going on outside of her own skin (and very few about what’s going on inside, too). Throughout the story, she’s a doll moving with the tide.

She doesn’t have any real goals, until partway through the book when she decides that seeing a certain man (Thenser) again is what she wants. She is largely passive, accepting the positions she is put in by whatever man has possession of her at the time, and making whatever choices are expected of her. She spends most of her time waiting for her man to come to her, not the other way around.

To be fair to little Ara, the only times she is proactive or tries to pursue her own desires, she’s punished for it. The most extreme example is when she tries to join her beloved (Thenser, whom she is not even certain actually loves her), attempts to travel across an island being invaded, is (predictably) robbed, nearly raped (again), and winds up in prison, destined to be executed.

It doesn’t help that she’s a stupid (and I mean that in the literal ‘not-smart’ sense), self-involved little girl who never grows into anything more. This is another part of the novel that is frustrating for me: she has no character arc. The story takes her from age 13 to 17, and while she gains some new experiences, skills, and information, she doesn’t grow as a person. The only real change is that she’s fixated on a man she believes she’s in love with; Thenser the only thing outside of herself that she has any interest in.

Her reaction to extreme situations is also frustrating, especially as a reader. Ara often winds up near battles or in volatile, dangerous situations, where she must act. These could have been her opportunity to be proactive, to find that strength that she otherwise lacks, and even be an avenue for growth. Instead, every single time she’s under threat, she becomes distant from the situation. Emotionally and mentally, explicitly stated in the narrative, she checks out and avoids engaging with what’s going on. The first couple of times would be understandable – she’s a young girl who has never encountered real violence before – but this happens every time. She doesn’t learn, change, or grow. She doesn’t learn how to cope under those circumstances. Her escapes are either reflex or luck, like the time she accidentally killed a man trying to rape her because she had no idea she was holding a blade.

It might be realistic, but that doesn’t make it something I want to read, and it doesn’t make her a heroine. I kept waiting for her to find some strength in herself; the one time it almost happens is when yet another man is trying to rape her and she winds up hitting him over the head with something heavy. She almost redeemed herself there, but the internal monologue that went with it completely undercut any sense of strength or growth in her, and the next time she was faced with a threatening situation, she went all distant and useless again.

I kept hoping to see her grow into a heroine, into a glimpse of the adult she would eventually become, but I was denied. The truth is that I can’t think of a single heroic thing she does through the whole story.

The only thing that comes close is that she saves the life of a man she knows by crossing his name off an execution list. He (Thenser) goes on to be important in the wars that are raging, and later she grows fixated on him and winds up building her life around him. Is that her heroic moment? Enabling the story’s true hero to live?

This happens fairly early in the story, and I hoped that it was a glimpse of the heroine she would become. For the first time, she showed a glimpse of a desire to help someone who was not herself, and risked herself to do it. She seemed to want to do the right thing, to fight the killing around her in a way she could achieve.

Sadly, that’s the only time she shows even a glimmer of that sort of thing. It’s as if she ticked a box and moved on, back into utter self-involvement. Or, possibly, she spends so long obsessing over whether she’ll get caught that I think she was too scared to risk it again. Even though absolutely no consequences came of it for her.

For a story called The Heroine of the World, our protagonist is utterly reliant on men. For everything. She is constantly being saved by one, or waiting for one to rescue her. When she doesn’t need saving, she’s relying on men to feed and clothe her, guide her, teach her, house her, transport her to someplace safe, tell her what to do. (There’s a brief respite where she’s mentored by a woman, but even then it’s so she can learn how to be around – and catch – men, because Ara can’t learn anything unless someone is purposefully teaching it to her.) What she gives them in return is sex. Even when she saves Thenser, her one moment of risk for another person, she’s only successful because she uses her vagina to distract the man who might catch her (she’s 14 years old at this point in the story). And yet she fails to have any real sexual awareness and doesn’t even manage to become a vixen, using sex to manipulate men. She has not a single feminine wile that she’s able to use.

The sexual politics in the book are realistic and brutal, and those likely to be sensitive to that sort of issue should be warned. Ara starts a sexual relationship with an adult man at age 14, and he is an acknowledged paedophile in the story. There are rapes and attempted rapes throughout the story, including what’s probably best classified as consensual rape (she’s too passive to say ‘no’ but also does not say ‘yes’).

What about other characters in the book? Honestly, a lot of them are more interesting, but pall because we only see them through Ara’s self-involved eyes. She has no curiosity and no insight, which doesn’t really help illuminate those around her for a reader.

One example of this is poor Thenser, the one character in the book who pops up throughout. He meets Ara as a child, then later as a more developed teenager, and eventually becomes her lover. (The paedophilic vibes in this book are squirmingly obvious.)

The ‘romance’ between Ara and Thenser is strange at best. It’s obvious how Ara convinces herself that she’s in love with him (this is exactly how it feels to me – she talks herself into it), but I am utterly bewildered by Thenser’s attitude towards her. He seems to vary between bewildered, put-upon, tolerant, and exasperated, and yet he keeps coming back to her.

She’s a complication and a thorn in his side at many turns; she’s a childish and costly burden to him at others. This is an adult man who is actively involved in the powerplays and wars being waged around them, who is a key player in many senses, putting up with a girl trying to have a teenage romance. He never finds out that she saved his life way back near the start of their story (she never bothers to tell him), so what reason does he have to have affection for her or continue to look after her? It seems a lot like obligation coupled with heaps of mind-blowing sex, which doesn’t really balance out just how much trouble she causes for him through the story.

There’s also a suggestion that his affection is linked to the fact that she looks like her (adult) aunt, whom he tried and failed to screw early in the story (before the aunt died). Not exactly a healthy place for this relationship to be built from.

Why, Thenser, why? Apart from putting up with Ara, he’s the best candidate for a hero this story has. He’s the only redeeming thing about her, and she’s the thing that brings him down (repeatedly).

I want to grab both of them and shake them hard. Ultimately, though, Ara feels like a heap of missed opportunities, representing all the worst stereotypes of useless teenage girls.


There is one reason this is not a one-star review: the writing in this novel is glorious. It is rich and skilful, winding in beautiful imagery and metaphor that carries us along. The language is simply gorgeous (and probably the only reason I made it to the end of the book). Lee’s descriptions are works of art.

This is the type of language that deserves to be studied in English Literature classes. Truly beautiful, clever, poetic prose.

It is such a shame that she didn’t do something better with it!

The writing leans heavily on metaphors, mixing up the description with fantastical elements so much that a lot of the novel takes on a dreamlike quality. Sadly, this is also what makes the fantasy/magical side of the story not work.

There are moments when I suspect we’re supposed to assume that something magical or goddess-driven is happening, but because even mundane scenery is given high-blown, mystical imagery, it comes off as just another clever metaphor. There’s no differentiation between what we’re supposed to take as literal description and what’s colourful metaphor. Ara is so ignorant and easily bewildered by ordinary things, it’s hard to tell if she is being affected by something mystical, or just having a turn because she’s a bit flighty in the head.

It’s possible that Lee has done this on purpose. It’s possible that she’s making a point here; after all, in a fantasy world, magic is not fantastical or out of the ordinary. As a reader, though, there is no real differentiation between what we consider to be ordinary and what we would recognise as not of our world.

Definitely language and imagery worth revelling, though, whichever way you want to read its metaphors.

Would I recommend it?

No. I found the novel extremely frustrating and I dislike books that don’t deliver on their promises. Subverting them is fine, surprising me is fine, but simply failing is different. This book fails in almost every way that matters to me.

A waste of wonderful writing.

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7 October 2015 - 5:38 pm

NaNoWriMo 2015: planning and prep

I can’t believe it’s October already. Ahhh!

Once again, National Novel Writing Month looms on my horizon. That means that I have a 50,000-word project to plan, and a region’s events and activities and giveaways to organise.

Luckily, my co-ML and I have been working on the latter for the last few months, taking our time. As October tipped into being, we’re almost set up: we only have a couple of details left to shake out, and then we’ll be completely set!

Our write-in calendar is the easiest of the organisation. We’ve got it down to a well-oiled machine now, with our awesome venue and a schedule that is a little crazy (our weekend write-ins run for 10 hours each) but one that we know works for us and our writers.

One of the biggest events we’re doing this year is the Kick-off Party. After the success of last year’s evening Halloween party with the writing start at midnight on 1st November, we were determined to make it even better this year. It’s our last weekend Halloween for a few years, so we’re making the most of it!

One thing we wanted to do was find a better place to hold the KoP this year. Last year’s was good but there was room for improvement. So, my co-ML and I had a chat with the manager of our wonderful write-in venue, the Coffee Club at Milton (affectionately referred to as the CCM). They usually close up around 9 or 10pm, but when we explained what we wanted to do, the manager had no hesitation at all: she offered to stay open to 2am. So we can do the party and the midnight start, right in our usual NaNo home!

It’s all set up and ready to go. I can’t wait!

The other big thing we’re doing this year is trying something different with our Writers’ Retreat. After our experiences and feedback last year, we decided that it wasn’t going to work again, so it was time for something new. We needed something low-cost but loads of fun. This year, we’ve decided to do an Overnight Write-in instead.

What does that mean? It means piling as many people as possible into my house for a weekend, telling them to bring their own pillows so they can crash on couches/mattresses/floors, and getting catering in to feed them all. The catering and some of the details are still a WIP, but it’s coming along. I should be ready to publicise the details and take bookings soon.

Once that’s done, we’re ready to rumble! The only other bits we have left to do is to take a trip to the candy warehouse to bulk-buy in the candy we need (writers need sugar – and caffeine, but we only supply sugar), and put together the party bags and lanyards for the Kick-off Party. That’s lined up for a couple of weeks’ time. Some quality testing of the candy may be involved.

Look! My plan! (Note: this photo was intentionally fuzzied to avoid spoilers.)

Look! My plan!
(Note: this photo was intentionally fuzzied to avoid spoilers.)

It feels good to be an organised ML. But what about what I’m writing this year? Weeeell… I’m getting there.

I have been tossing up what to do with my NaNo project this year, and as I suspected when I started my Starwalker hiatus, getting Book 5 underway is going to be my focus. While I do largely write without detailed plans, I want to start Book 5 off with direction and purpose, particularly after my Starwalker Book 4 experiences.

So, at our regular write-in this month (which happened on Saturday 3rd October), I sat down and noodled out the next part of Starry’s journey. This led to the collection of 10 notecards you see depicted in this post: 5 plot-progress cards, picking out the major sections and some of the details that will be in each one; and 5 ‘things to deal with’ cards, to identify the over-arcing issues that Starry and her crew need to handle somewhere in all that plot stuff.

I didn’t intend for them to be 5 each; I just wrote up everything that was buzzing around in my head. Sometimes things just come out weirdly symmetrical. Be assured that those cards are actually all different sizes: some plot points and issues are bigger than others.

Looking at it now, I have no idea if I can get through all of that in 50,000 words. I’m not sure if that is all of Book 5 but I suspect it might be, and that means… there is likely to be a Book 6.

(Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but the planned stuff only covers Starry’s visit to the space pirates; there’s a whole other adventure that comes after that.)

Wow. So much to write! I’ve set up a brand new Scrivener project to write it in (I’m transferring over to Scrivener from yWriter, now that I’m working primarily on a Mac). All I have left to do is read over the end of Book 4 again to get my head in the right space, and then it’ll be time to go.

Looking forward to it. It has been too long since I’ve written about my favourite starship. I needed the break, but it’s time to get back to it now! Bring on NaNoWriMo 2015. :)

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30 September 2015 - 7:19 pm

New edition, old habits

Book 0's new cover!

Book 0’s new cover!

I have been talking about re-issuing the Apocalypse Blog ebooks for some time now. I received a few comments on the first book that proved it needed attention (much to my own chagrin, but we live and learn). In an effort to address the issues identified, I had an editor go through the whole series and give me feedback. After the sales started to flag, I also had new covers  created.

And then life got in the way and the project fell by the wayside. Sadly, it hasn’t been at the top of my list. Until now.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been going through the first book(s) (Book 1: End of the Old and the short prequel Book 0: Before the End), editing pretty heavily, and updating things like links and covers.

It has been an interesting process so far. Going back over writing I did in 2009, I’ve been noticing patterns and habits, some of which I have since made an effort to rid myself of.

For example, I use the word ‘that’ a lot in unnecessary places. ‘He said that’, ‘the reason that’… the list goes on. During this edit, I’m challenging every instance of the word ‘that’ and removing probably 80% of them. (‘Just’ is similarly challenged, but there are much fewer of those because it has been a bugbear of mine for much longer.)

I also have too many commas. It’s something I habitually try to edit out of my work (my first drafts are always riddled with unnecessary commas). The Apocalypse Blog isn’t too bad in this regard, but there are still too many and it reads better now I’m taking some of them out.

I used dashes between clauses instead of proper punctuation. I think I noticed this habit sometime during writing the Apocalypse Blog and stopped doing it, but apparently that wasn’t during the span of the first book. Now, it’s not something I would ever do (on purpose); I’ve become something of a fan of the semi-colon for the type of pause in a sentence that a dash used to stand for.

As I’m going through this edit, where a sentence has only one dash in it – that is, it’s not used for an aside like this – I am replacing it with a colon, semi-colon, or just breaking the sentence off. I’m much happier with the sentences after they’re challenged this way.

The new look for Book 1

The new look for Book 1

Something I’m noticing for the first time is: I hyphenate often. Usually this is for double-barrelled descriptors, which is fine, but sometimes it joins two words together to make something new. Faith’s voice played around with language a lot and some of what she was describing gave me scope to do this.

Reading it over again now, I notice that there are a lot of instances of this and I’m changing many of them. Some I’m removing the hyphen from; others I’m rewording to remove the phrase entirely and creating something that’s a little more easily understood. In places, I was ambitious with what I was trying to do with the language and imagery; sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I figure that if any of the images don’t flow for me now, my readers probably have the same issue, so they can be improved by being changed.

Writing is a process of changing and learning and changing some more, and I think this retrospective has been a valuable opportunity for me. Some of it is in how far my writing has come since I first penned the Apocalypse Blog. Some of it is seeing my work through an editor’s eyes as I go through the feedback, and some is picking out other things that I can improve upon (like the hyphenation).

It’s also taking me a lot longer to work through this edit than I had anticipated. I’m glad I started it when I had some time to play with; this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be rushed.

I’m excited to get these new editions tidied up and releasable. While I’m updating and refining things, I’m going to be taking a look at the layout and general appearance of the ebooks, and making improvements there if they need it. Pricing will also be reviewed and most likely changed.

I’m looking forward to relaunching these books, sending a fresh version of this beloved story out into the world. For those who have bought it already, you should get the changes for free. Watch this space. Hopefully it’ll entice new readers to try the series, too!

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