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2020: Week 11 (WFH #1)

So this is the point at which the blog will shift somewhat to focus on pandemic life. I’ve made the decision to keep my kids off school as of this week which in turn (though it wasn’t exactly planned that way) has resulted in my working from home for this week. To be honest, I’d be happy with this arrangement being a long term one: given the situation, I’m comfortable with physical distancing, I’m comfortable with maintaining an appropriate level of isolation, and I’m able to do my job just as well from home.

So far its working out pretty well. Without the need to get kids ready for school my morning routine is already much improved. I have time for writing, exercise and breakfast, and I can typically start work at 8am instead of 9am.

I also took the time to draft up a daily schedule for the kids (and how looking after them fits into my working pattern). We don’t follow it slavishly, but it’s helped to give some structure to the day. Broadly speaking the mornings are like this:

  • 8:30am – breakfast;
  • 9am – get dressed and do any homework or online assignments that have been provided by the school (at this point, schools are being directed to focus on teaching attending students, but a few of the Kinderbesten’s teachers have, wonderfully, found the time to post things online);
  • 10am – (roughly) short break time. The Kinderbesten have latterly started using this time to settle down with a documentary (it’s learning, but it’s also lounging!);
  • 10:30am – online learning. The Kinderbeast has been making good use of Khan Academy, while the Elderbeast almost always has work that can be done on Education Perfect. There are, however, numerous online education resources that are available.
  • 11am – crunch and sip time, aka a quick break and a healthy snack;
  • 12:30am – lunch and finish. The Kinderbesten obviously have the option to keep working if they want to, or if there’s still assignments to be done, but as long we we can get roughly 3-4 hours of learnin’ happening I’m satisfied.
  • Afternoon – craft/hobby time. For the Elderbeast this is PS4 time, but the Kinderbeast is enjoying playing with his LEGO, drawing, or doing whatever takes his fancy.
  • 2pm – walk time. I’m trying to balance education, recreation and exercise. One of the easiest ways to ensure we at least get some exercise, and don’t go completely stir crazy, is making sure we at least have a walk at some point in the day. A couple of times this week I’ve, reluctantly, walked the Kinderbesten down to the cafe to get coffee/hot chocolate (I made them wait outside while I ordered), but on another day we walked down the road and discovered that one of our neighbours owns a flock of sheep, which was much fun.

Obviously I’m continuing to work while all of this is going on, but I’ve purposefully scheduled my day into multiple short blocks of work (ensuring I’m doing my hours) instead of expecting to be able to work uninterrupted for 6 to 7 hours.

Adapting to change can be hard, but that should never be a reason not to change when you need to.

One good thing

My good thing this week is how well the Kinderbesten have adapted, and how invested they are in their morning work. They miss their friends, and obviously get distracted at the drop of a hat, but this transition hasn’t been as hard as it might have been largely because the Kinderbesten have taken it in their stride.

One bad thing

I have noticed how easily it is for habits to slip. After a few weeks of being very diligent in washing my hands, it’s all too easy to find myself doing just a quick surface wash, or forgetting entirely. Hopefully I can catch these occasions where I slip up slightly and keen reinforcing those good habits.

2020: Week 10

(March 9 – 15)

With my brain distracted by the impending Coronavirus pandemic, I’ve opted to edit the last chapter of the novel instead of writing new words for now. The last chapter was the one that I had the least idea about going in, but shaped up quite nicely as I wrote it out. Predictably the first draft needed a little surgery before I could be totally happy to leave it behind me (ready for the next draft) but the edit has helped me tease out the main themes of the chapter and strengthen the characterisation in a number of places. I’ve also added a few new bits here and there. Overall, a relatively positive writing week.

One good/bad thing

My brain is comparative pudding at the moment, consumed by the massive, sudden change we’re all facing in our lives. When everything’s bad, it’s hard to focus on what’s good. If there is a good, it’s that we can change, it is possible to change quickly; we can adapt and get through this. And I wrote a blog post about it if you want to read more.

Change rapidly. Change rationally. Change together.

So we’ve come to this: a strange, terrifying and unexpected moment in history where we need to change the way we live our lives. We need to change rapidly, and we need to do it rationally. The problem is change is hard: it makes us feel uncomfortable and awkward, it makes us feel vulnerable and, often, self-conscious. One of the best ways we can help this process of change is to quickly normalise behaviours that would have seemed extreme only a week or two ago: the more we see someone else doing something new, the less weird it seems for us to do it ourselves.

And, in that spirit, here are some of the ‘weird’ changes I’ve made in the last week.

Dropped the handshake.

I’ve had two meetings this week where a handshake would have normally been part of the proceedings. I was, naturally, a little anxious about how to avoid doing the handshake, but it was all fine. In the first meeting the other person was clearly as uncomfortable as me about the prospect and offered an elbow bump instead, which immediately broke any tension. (This is now my favourite way to greet strangers). In another meeting, the person offered their hand and I simply didn’t return the gesture. They immediately understood and realised the fault was theirs (for falling back on automatic behaviours). Hopefully, in turn, that person will think again before offering a handshake (or accepting one) at their next meeting. In short, two potentially awkward moments resolved swiftly, politely, and with all involved already understanding that it’s time to drop the handshake.

Pretended my face doesn’t exist.

Seriously, not touching my face is the hardest (and I know this is a universal challenge). Your nose and mouth are gateways to viral paradise, and your hands are one of the express lines to get there. Tips from a friend include grabbing a tissue to scratch your face with (and then disposing of the tissue), or using your shoulder to get a good rub in. I’m trying to remain conscious of whenever I come close to touching my face, and getting used to leaving my face to itch in peace (as much as is possible). I’ve considered shaving my beard, as I have a compulsive habit of fiddling with any hair I can find on my face and head. Anything! I’ll try anything!

Washing hands; all the time.

This one was easy, I’ve been reasonably ok at washing my hands in the past although, again, far from perfect. It’s also an easy change: people are more likely to scrutinise you if you *don’t* wash your hands now, so don’t be that person. I’m just putting it here to reinforce the message: everyone’s doing it now, so please wash your hands.

Don’t touch anything!

I’ve become highly conscious of everything I touch in a typical day, and how many other people might have touched that same thing. A few of the methods I’ve adopted for minimising this contact is to use my knuckle instead of my finger for pressing buttons; use my foot, elbow or fist for opening doors, or hook a single finger around the door handle if I’m on the other side. In some shared bathrooms it’s all well and good washing your hands, but then you have to turn the tap off and pull the door open; both of which could potentially undo all that good hand-washing. For this scenario, I’ve started using paper towels: one to turn off the tap (and then in the bin), and the ones I use to dry my hands then get reused for the door handle. These things feel a little strange the first couple of times, but they become second nature almost before the day’s out.

Wiped a trolley.

While I’m a relatively clean person, my approach to hygiene can be scattershot. Consequently, I’ve never been one to use the free wipes that are provided for wiping down supermarket trolleys. That changed this week, to the extent where I took my own wipe in case there were no free ones left. I honestly felt quite self-conscious about it, but told myself that anyone watching may well think about their own behaviours and feel better about taking the same step next time they have to go shopping. It’s a very simple precaution that could help make a big difference. For smaller shops, where I would normally just grab a basket, I’ve also looked into buying my own basket, or simply carrying my purchases in my arms to the till. Anything to minimise touching things that hundreds of other people have touched, or may touch after me.

Wearing gloves.

Not gonna lie; given the above two challenges, I’m thinking very seriously about wearing gloves when I go out (and have to touch things). Disposable latex gloves. Washable cotton gloves. Just whatever does the job. Do whatever you need to do to feel better about being out there (and think whether you really, really have to go out there in the first place).

Disinfect! Disinfect! Disinfect!

The best way to not touch dirty things is to keep things clean. I’ve also become aware of how many things there are around my home that get touched all the time, and rarely get cleaned. Phones. Cards. Light switches. Remote controls. Door handles. We use them every single day without really thinking about it. Disinfectant to the rescue here. I’ve started wiped everything down. I even took the cases of all of our phones and washed them in hot water. Again, things that would have seemed borderline deranged to me last week now feel like perfect common sense.

Staying at home.

I’m making preparations for working from home. I’m preparing to cancel, or decline any upcoming events—and ideally switch them to online events (because it’s still important to do things with your friends). I’m almost certainly going to keep the kids off school next week. I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I can make these choices, but keeping away from people, at least for a while, is the key to stopping this thing spreading and I’m trying to do whatever I can to reduce the risk of anyone getting sick (including myself). Outrageous choices become much easier in emergency situations. And that’s where we are.

So, if you’ve been holding off making changes because you think it’s too soon, or because you think you’re being extreme: it’s not, and you’re not. If you read this and it makes you feel more comfortable about the change you need to make in your own life, remember: you’re not alone, we’re all in this together, and that’s how we’ll get through it.

Now, go forth and sanitize! Or rather, stay at home and sanitize!

2020: Week 9

(March 2 – 8)

Another relatively straightforward writing week, the highlight of which was finishing the current chapter of the [first draft of] the novel and moving onto the next one. I suspect I’ll follow the recent pattern: write at least half of the chapter to finalise where the story is going to go, then go back and re-edit the first bits before ploughing onto the end.

At this point I haven’t done any plotting for this chapter—at least on paper. It’s been coming together very nicely in my head, and just last week I saw how the specific theme of the chapter could work really well with its place in the novel as well as the plot/character developments that need to happen.

For a long while, this was set to be one of the more challenging chapters, but suddenly I’m pretty excited to get stuck in.

One good thing

My latest purchase from Audible has been A Little History of Philosophy, which is a great little run through the history of philosophy. I’ve been really enjoying it, and what I’ve learned from it so far is that most philosophers seem to be complete dicks.

One bad thing

One of my deficiencies as a writer is my sense of place. I often get far too into what my characters are saying, thinking and doing, and forget to tell my readers a little more about where they are. The result, at least from my experience of reading similarly thinly sketched writing, is that it’s hard for the reader to fully immerse themselves in the story; their imagination has to do extra work to figure out where they are, which can distract from the story itself.

While I don’t think I’ll ever be one to write rich, extensive paragraphs of descriptive prose, I do need to up my game a little. I often find that a few well sketched details are enough to convey a place, but I also (mostly from reading Hugh Howey’s work lately) can see how authoritative descriptive writing can really help settle the reader. If, as a reader, we can tell that the author really understands where we are then it, ironically, helps us to forget that there’s an author in the first place. As in movies, the best special effects / editing / music / etc are when you don’t notice them in the first place.

Now, I’m not too worried about all of this for my first drafts: those are simply there to get the story down, and the detail can be added later. But, at some point, I need to add enough layers that the reader can be comfortably placed in the story without having to stop and wonder where they are.

My best course for resolving this is to see what other writers do. However, I always want to try another option. In researching an earlier chapter of the novel I needed to check what a wartime New York bar would look like, so I started Googling photos.That gave me the visual reference I needed to add at least a little passing authenticity to that particular chapter. I reckon I could do this for other chapters when needed: find imagery that represents the scene I want to set and then, as a writing exercise, describe what I’m seeing in the photo. Hopefully this will me the background detail to add a little extra authenticity to my scene setting.

Doctor Who: Season 12

With season 12 of Doctor Who now wrapped up in a comparatively short 10 episode run, my mind is burning with all sorts of contradictory thoughts. Which means the only thing to do is to put most of them down on [virtual] paper.

Needless to say this post will be packed with spoilers for season 12, right up to the finale – so please don’t read if you haven’t already watched.

The old before the new

First things first, I’ve been a Doctor Who fan since the late seventies, and one thing I’ve learned in that time is that the lot of a Whovian is one of frustration. The show wavers chaotically between excellence and wretchedness, but most typically achieves a level of benign satisfaction. We keep watching because of those flashes of greatness, and because of the underlying magic of the premise, but mostly because we love the show. Consequently, I’ve found myself in familiar territory during the current era of the show. 

Still, in the interests of full transparency, my trajectory through Nu Who has been as follows:

  • RTD: absolutely nailed the show’s return, but gradually descended into overblown noise towards the end; frantically throwing out increasingly grand plot threads and trying to string them all together. That said, “Turn Left” and “Midnight” remain two of the finest episodes of Nu Who;
  • Moffatt: personally a big fan. His ability to continually reinvent the show, and really draw deep on the fairy tale / mythological elements kept me intrigued, even when some of his more ambitious plot threads didn’t really pan out. I’m not blind to his limitations, but he also deserves more credit that he gets for leading the show to where it is now (things like canonising transgender regeneration; and introducing the show’s first openly gay companion);
  • Chibnall: we’ll talk more about this below but, given that Chibnall’s previous episodes for the show were among its weakest, I went into series 11 with a huge sense of excitement that we had a female Doctor at last, and looking forward to the show being refreshed, but remained wary about Chibnall’s ability to manage the narrative aspects.

Back to season 11

I’m not gonna lie. I did come out of season 11 a little bit frustrated (again, this is relatively normal for a Whovian). We had an awesome new Doctor; a really interesting set of companions; and an incredibly gorgeous, cinematic looking show. Unfortunately, the writing never quite matched up. There was a sense that this series was more about people, and particularly about having ‘real’ people in the TARDIS. We had beautiful moments with Graham, some decent moments with Ryan (even though it was often forgotten that he was also supposed to be grieving), but next to nothing for the two female characters. Jodie Whitaker delivered an excellent persona for the doctor, but was given almost no character work in her scripts to truly tuck into. Meanwhile, poor Yaz was barely even a character.

Don’t stray from the path

I think it’s a commonly held view that the seismic changes elsewhere in the show were balanced by an excessively safe approach to the narrative. We had three excellent historical stories, but each had alien subplots shoehorned in that didn’t really need to be there. We had stories that seemed to be written by people who were doing science fiction by rote, rather than truly exploring the ideas in their stories. We had a brief mention of the Timeless Child, but for the first time in ages no overriding arc to the season … which led us to a season that ended not so much with a final, but with a disappointing whimper. It seemed as if Season 11 wanted to tread its own path, but lacked the courage to stray too far from convention.

Familiar things

So, given season 11 actively avoided returning villains or any other continuity, it’s surprising that Chibnall plunged so deeply into that well for season 12; to the extent that every major plot point comes across as something that we’ve seen before. To whit:

  • A new character that turns out to be the Master. Check.
  • Gallifrey, and the Time Lords, have been destroyed: Check.
  • We discover there’s a brand new Doctor that we’ve never heard of before: Check.
  • An alien planet that turns out to be Earth. Check.

Even the creature design suffered from this inadvertent trenching of the show’s past: an alien villain that looked so similar to the Racnoss that it’s staggering that it seems to have been unintentional; then creatures in another episode that immediately had fans quipping ‘are you my Mummy?’. We also had a [pretty cool] new Cyberman design that, at least in this case, intentionally referred back to a classic design.

A bit of give and [a lot of] take

But the renewed focus on plot and continuity has come at the expense of the characters. There have been some bizarre token attempts to elevate Yaz (mainly in Praxeus), but she has also been actively undermined in other episodes. Check the moment in Orphan 55 where she interrupts the old man trying to propose, and the later scene in the same episode where she is deliberately shown to have worked out half the plot out five minutes after the Doctor has already done it (why have that moment at all when it only serves to make Yaz look stupid?). Not to mention the scene in Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror where she–a trained policewoman, remember–is shown failing to clear a street, and it’s left to the older white man to do the job. These are moments that do active disservice to a character; in comparison, Ryan and Graham get off lightly with absolutely no character development this season.

In their place

Most disturbing are the other instances in which female characters have had their agency reduced or completely taken away. This is particularly glaring given the show’s surface sheen of ‘wokeness’ (horrible word), which seems to all but disappear once you start scratching away at it. We’ve already had the fridging of a black female character at the start of the last season (which was clearly done to explore the impact on the white male character, given Ryan’s relatively trauma-free journey through the show). This season starts off terribly with two strong, female historical characters having their memories forcibly wiped by the Doctor (totally ignoring the commentary following similar scenarios with Donna and Clara previously).

Later we have an episode in which Mary Shelley is seen getting the inspiration for Frankenstein from an encounter with a cyberman, as opposed to from her own imagination (this is particularly disappointing given how expertly they avoided that same mistake in last season’s Rosa). To make matters worse, Mary Shelley’s role in the episode is that of mother and concerned partner. Her massive cultural impact is given zero relevance to the plot: conversely, Mr. Shelley’s role in history is impassionedly defended by the Doctor and proves critical to the outcome of the episode.

Who?

Which leads us to the biggest inconsistencies of the season—both in terms of the character and the message of the show—which are saved for the Doctor. We’ve already had the mind-wiping business; the same episode sees her joyfully handing the Master over the Nazis, having first removed the perception filter that hides his distinctly non-Aryan appearance. We end the season with her prepared to commit genocide (something previously established as a very non-Doctor thing to do). 

In between this we are supposedly presented with a ‘darker Doctor’, but this is mostly limited to her companions remarking that she’s been a bit moody lately, and the occasional instance of her getting a bit bossy with them. The ‘darker doctor’ business is obviously building up the revelations about the Timeless Child, and the hidden areas of her past. On this aspect, there’s some excellent commentary from the always worthwhile Andrew Ellard pointing out how damaging it potentially is to have our first female doctor being handed her trauma by a male character in the season finale.

And again, a traumatised Doctor is ground that has already been well-trodden in Nu Who.

Those juicy, juicy plot holes

And yet, despite all the revelations and exposition, what about all the bits that are still left hanging?

  • Are we really not doing anything with the trans-dimensional aliens from the first episode who seemingly had nothing to do with the two trans-dimensional portals we saw in the season finale? There has to be a link here, right? Especially given the Master was involved in both …
  • … and anyway, how did the Master escape from the other dimension and end up on Gallifrey? 
  • And how did the ‘boundary’ conveniently link to Gallifrey exactly when the plot needed it to?
  • How did the Master figure out the Timeless Child business when the Matrix was so heavily redacted? And there was nothing in there anyway that explicitly linked the Doctor to the Timeless Child? Unless he learned some of it from elsewhere?
  • How did Jack know to warn the Doctor about the ‘lone cyberman’ when he was nowhere to be seen in the finale?
  • And why did Jack think it necessary to warn about the ‘lone cyberman’ when the cyberium ended up having absolutely no impact on anything in the end? Unless, it has more to do with what’s ahead (given that the Master still has the cyberium).
  • Exactly how do dead Time Lords regenerate? And if they were still able to regenerate, why were they dead?
  • And why does Doctor Ruth’s TARDIS look like a police box? 

Ending on a positive note

Of course there have been some great moments this season. I for one love the retcon twist with the new Doctor(s) and the Timeless Child: it broadens the Universe of the show and makes the Doctor’s past a mystery once again (even if Chibnall did blow most of that wad during the extended burst of exposition in the season finale). This season has done other exciting new things: the opening of Praxeus, with the companions already separated and on-mission, was awesomely cinematic, and offered a rare chance to begin a story from beyond the perspective from outside the TARDIS crew. The animated sequence in Can Your Hear Me? was also a fun way to deliver exposition (in a season that has typically done a very poor job with exposition).

So, in short, a season that has delivered some excellent things, some terrible things, and a lot of in between. Classically frustrating.

2020: Week 8

(February 24 – March 1)

This week I’ve been mostly preoccupied with editing the chapter I’m currently working on. The first draft is what takes me from the start to the end of the story (for that particular chapter). The editing process is how I find the best route between those two points.

One good thing

I watched Skyscraper this weekend (much fun!) and instantly pegged one of the supposedly good guys as a bad guy. It’s fun being able to spot the little storytelling tricks that reveal these things, but it makes me realise we need to explore new tricks.

On the other hand, a supposedly good character turning out to be bad is a frustrating twist if it comes out of nowhere. There has to be something leading to the moment, something that adds up even if we don’t see it at first.

So what are your writing tricks for shifting a character from good to bad (or vice versa)?

One bad thing

As you’ll gather from my writing updates recently, I’m still working on the right balance between plotting and pantsing. For now I’m getting by with a basic plot, first draft, then rewrite, but it’s hardly the most efficient option.

No answers yet, but watch this space.

2020: Week 7

(February 17 – 23)

I took a brief four-day detour from the novel this week and churned out two short stories! A writer friend of mine alerted me to a local short story competition (theme: beneath; word count: 1200; requirement: spooky) and then shared two excellent stories that he’d written for potential submission.

Inspired by this, I wrote out a story that had been bubbling around for a while. I somehow managed to write this in a single morning, and I think it may even be one of the better things I’ve written. However, I decided it wasn’t anywhere near spooky enough. Luckily I had a backup idea, which I wrote over the subsequent two mornings (and then did a final pass on the third morning).

This one is definitely spooky, and has such a nasty ending it literally had me tweeting in glee about how diabolical it was. Needless to say, that’s the one that got submitted, so wish me luck.

One good thing

My favourite podcast this week is Cautionary Tales, which is broadly an exploration of the psychological reasons why we often make bad decisions. However, the episode that most resonated with me this week was all about the way that obstacles (aka challenges) can be a good thing. The example of this that I often fall back to is how the shark in Jaws simply never worked the way it was meant to, forcing the filmmakers to adapt their approach to telling their story. As a result we got one of the best movies of all time.

One bad thing

I’m wrapping up this post as the world faces up to pandemic life, which makes my original topic making more productive use of my evenings) feel a little moot. 

At this point in time (March 22 as I write) simply using evenings to kick back, relax and stay sane in a crazy world seems more than good enough.

As I drafted this post originally (Feb 23) my concern was that many of my evenings were an untapped block of hours in which I could be editing stories, submitting them, working on podcasts, etc, etc.

How naive we all were back in—*checks notes*—last month.

2020: Week 6

(February 10 – 16)

Not much of a writing update this week. I’m continuing with the current chapter of the book, and experiencing no major roadblocks (even though the word counts haven’t been anything particularly flash). Perhaps most significantly, I was sufficiently into the flow of things by the end of the week that I sat down for a relatively rare Saturday morning writing shift, which helped bumped those word counts up a bit.

One good thing

This week I had the unique joy of sitting down to watch The Princess Bride with the Kinderbesten and seeing them both completely enthralled by it. Some of my favourite moments as a parent are getting to introduce the Kinderbesten to films that I have grown up loving. Sometimes, the particular film doesn’t gel with them for whatever reason; other times I find that I’ve given them a new favourite film to enjoy.

For me, The Princess Bride sits in a relatively small group of films that have huge cult followings, but that I didn’t quite ‘get’ on my first viewing, and yet grew to love over subsequent years. My initial bafflement with film was that I found it a little rough around the edges: some of the jokes didn’t quite land; some scenes finished awkwardly; there were moments that felt like they should have been ‘more’. Of course, after that first viewing I started thinking more about land wars with Asia, and only being mostly dead, and whether I would go into a swordfight using my left or right hand, or maybe both.

So my takeaway from The Princess Bride is that it’s more than the sum of its parts (even though some of those parts are very, very good). Not every moment of something needs to be perfect, particularly if the completed work is able to convey the sheer sense of fun and joy that something like The Princess Bride is able to.

One less good thing

Predictably, my beautifully structured morning routine has fallen into slight disarray with the start of the school term. I’m managing to get the writing in, but at the expense of exercising. 

I’m also finding that there are lots of wasted pockets of time. Even though my alarm goes off at 6am, it’s typically close to 6:30am before I sit down to write with my mug of coffee in hand. Then I usually have to draw things to close around 7am in order to rouse the Elderbeast from his slumber, get him fed, and drop him at the bus stop. Then the cycle repeats with the Kinderbeast.

I somehow need to get in at least 10 minutes for some exercise, and ideally a guaranteed 45 minute shift for the writing. I could get up earlier, but in all honesty 6am feels about right for my sleep cycle. I could definitely be a bit quicker with getting the coffee ready. 

The only other area of give is to encourage the Elderbeast to be a bit more self-sufficient in the mornings. At the moment I worry that he won’t make it out of bed and to school in time unless I’m there to keep prodding him forward, but he’s definitely capable of getting himself ready. In theory this could give me a clear stretch from 6am to 7:30, which is more than enough time for everything.

Wish me luck!

2020: Week 5

(February 3 – 9)

This week I started a brand new chapter of the novel: equal parts scary and exciting. After the problems and extensive delays I experienced with the previous chapter, I decided to take a slightly different approach this time. As always, I knew roughly what the chapter was about, what needed to happen, and how it should feel, but I wanted to go into it with a clearer idea of what should happen in each scene. My hope is that this would avoid the issue of me getting stuck at various points wondering what was needed to happen next.

To do this I broke down the chapter into 9 or so scenes; enough to guide me from start, through middle, and to the end. I then put those scene into a short bullet-point list of those scenes. And that’s about it. Minimal as this process was, it helped me grasp the structure of the chapter, showed me the *story* for that chapter, and gave me enough confidence to plough into it.

So I did.

I wrote the first two scenes. I set things up, got my characters in place. And then things proceeded to go off in a slightly different direction; same story, just with the emphasis shifted a few degrees elsewhere. After that, I decided to rewrite those first scenes so I could get things set up a little more cleanly, given where the story wanted to go. I’m still only a few scenes in but, yeah, it’s looking like the story wants to go in a slight different direction than the one I plotted out.

And this is all fine. Good, in fact. I don’t regard the time I spent plotting the chapter as a waste, even though that’s not going to be the story I end up telling. A plot is nothing more than a plan; one possible route to get you from start to end, and there are, of course, many different ways to get to a destination. In this case, spending that time working on the plot helped me get a feel for my characters and the world they’re inhabiting in this particular chapter (as well as their trajectory through it). It was that initial sense of familiarity that gave the story, and me, the confidence to find a different direction.

I’ve often considered myself a ‘pantser’ more than a ‘plotter’, even though I usually have a clear idea of where my stories are going to go. But perhaps it turns out I’m both?

(p.s if you can see the awesomely cute feature image up there and you’re wondering whose work it is, it’s by the very brilliant Karen Hallion)

One good thing

My good thing this week has to be the finale of The Good Place, which I think might be just about perfect (and I’ll do my best not to spoil it in case you’ve yet to see it). There are many, many things I can learn from The Good Place, but my biggest takeaway from the finale is that the main story of the series (as in the plot component) had already been wrapped up in the previous episode. That left the extended final episode with nothing to do other than conclude each character’s journey.

It’s fairly common for final episodes to not quite work very well. One theory on this is that endings are unnatural, so we generally have trouble accepting them unless a story has been conventionally structured (hard to do in a series) or, perhaps, if all the characters die.

By virtue of its premise, The Good Place had the rare opportunity to separate out its ‘plot end’ from the end of its characters’ journeys, leaving us with a perfect hour to say goodbye to everyone in a way that seemed natural and satisfying.

And I think maybe this is the key lesson: the characters will drive the story, but they will sometimes have a different ending than the story. It’s worth looking at those threads separately and seeing where they lead, instead of trying to tie them all together at the same time.

Something to fix

My thing to fix this week is time. Sort of.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I don’t like being interrupted in the middle of things. One of the ways that this has affected my behaviour is that I generally won’t make use of small pockets of time: I won’t pick up a book if I only have five minutes of reading time (because I’ll want to finish a whole chapter). And, in the mornings, if I have less than twenty minutes of spare time I often find myself considering not sitting down to write.

This is, obviously, a not very productive approach—and it’s also a case of self-imposed barriers: I won’t get things done because I tell myself I don’t have time to get them done.

I’ve been thinking about how to fix this (mostly in relation to my writing). My mindset when it comes to writing is that ‘some words are better than no words’ and this has helped me through the mornings where the words aren’t flowing particularly well. One step is still a step closer to the finish line.

Coincidentally, while I was mulling all this over I saw a tweet from Neil Gaiman where he explained that he finished writing Coraline in 50 words chunks last thing at night. I believe I shall use that as prod when I catch myself thinking that 10 minutes isn’t long enough to write anything worthwhile.

2020: Week 4

(January 27 – February 2)

The novel is continuing to fall into place very nicely indeed. The formerly abandoned chapter is now finished (yay!) and has become one of my favourite chapters so far. It’s new position means it leads very nicely (thematically and emotionally) into the next chapter, which is a further bonus. 

With the new chapter I’ve once again enjoyed that excellent writerly experience whereby the words ultimately go where they need to go, but have taken some interesting and unplanned detours along the way. This, again, is why I prefer not to plot things out in too much detail: nothing more than a beginning, a middle, and a working idea of the journey in between, but enough space in between to let the characters find their own way if they want to.

One good thing

This week I’ve been rereading Dust, the third part of Hugh Howey’s excellent Wool trilogy. I dithered a bit with the first book, but then tore through the second. I’m keeping pace with this one, but it’s got to be said it’s a bit slower than the other two. It’s still an excellent read, but the plotting seems a bit less … compelling.

The principal issue is that not a great deal happens over the first 10 chapters: there’s one thing going on that proves integral to the plot, but it’s mostly scene-setting and catching up with wherever characters are in the wake of the previous book. Then, suddenly, a bunch of really interesting things start happening (and all is good again; except for the characters, for whom things are terrible).

So my main takeaway is this: when you have a handful of really good plot bombs to lob at your reader, don’t hold on to them. There’s at least one thread in Dust that could have kicked off much earlier, and would have helped carry the relatively unengaging first chapters.

That said, in Hugh Howey’s defence, the reason that those first ten chapters remain readable is that he’s an excellent writer who crafts strong, complex characters that you want to stick around with. So, I strongly expect he doesn’t need writing advice from the likes of me 😉

One bad thing

My ‘thing to fix’ this week was originally not going to be writing related. It was going to be a mini-rant about how hazardous YouTube is (in its capacity as a primary enabler for alt-right indoctrination) and, by extension, how much of a nightmare it is for parents like myself, given that Google provides only the most basic—and almost entirely useless—tools for controlling what your kids watch.

As a consequence, and mostly because I don’t know what else to do at this particular moment in time, I’ve taken a few dramatic steps towards limiting the Kinderbesten’s access to YouTube. For starters, I’ve blocked it by default on my kids’ device. I’ve mandated that there is no viewing of YouTube during the week. I’ve also set things up so that YouTube can only be viewed at other times via the living room TV (which at least have some capacity to monitor what’s being watched).

And that was going to be it. But then I happened to listen a recent episode of Our Opinions Are Correct, entitled “What’s The Matter With Star Wars?” Broadly speaking, this episode discussed how toxic Star Wars fandom has become. It also briefly addressed the reported interference of Russian bots into this space—you might recall the seemingly outlandish stories about bad reviews for The Last Jedi being blamed on Russia? Well, it turns out the strategy at play here is far more subtle and insidious than those news stories might suggest, and perfectly illustrates just how easy it is to gain a foothold within a relatively vulnerable and impressionable mind.

I’ve included a slightly edited quote below from the episode at the bottom of this post (from trans-activist Elena Rose Vera). What fascinates me about the quote is how it reveals the intersection of story and indoctrination. There’s a reason that Star Wars is so popular: it’s because it tells a universal story that we can all latch onto in some way. Almost all of us can find a way that it relates to ourselves. It’s the same with most pop culture phenomena: these things are popular because we can inject ourselves into those stories and, to an extent, either imagine ourselves living them or wish we were. 

So, when someone comes along and is able to tell you that ‘your’ story is being broken, or interfered with, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that such interference is a threat to yourself. And when we’re threatened we often fight back, but we prefer to do it with the support of other people who are ready to fight for the same cause as us. And once we’ve identified the enemy … well, it’s much harder to stop fighting and admit we were wrong in the first place about them than it is to carry on fighting.

Which is why something as seemingly trivial and inconsequential as YouTube is one of the things that has me most concerned as a parent, because big problems always have very tiny roots.

Elena Rose: [00:06:33] … These are widespread narrative power sources … where people are involved in story and also invested in what those stories mean about the story of themselves, and of the groups that they belong to and the people they identify with. And [right-wing agents have] clearly have figured out: … we can introduce some really poisonous discourse here and it will spread like wildfire and we will be able to sow the seeds of a lot of discontent and resentment and anger, and we can use it to sort of farm for angry young men who will lash out.

And they look at something like Star Wars and they go, this is something everyone is going to be watching. This is something everyone’s going to be talking about. And if we can inject ourselves into this conversation, we can essentially put out a signal across the world that will help us identify more people to bring into our movement by seeing who stands up and is ready to hurt people for this cause we’ve made up. We can say your childhood was destroyed by The Last Jedi and if you are with me, here are the people we need to harass and threaten today. And then you just scoop up all the people who say, “I’m in.”

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