Justin Cawthorne dot com

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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.”

2020: Week 3

(January 20-26)

The novel has been going gangbusters this week: I’ve beaten last week’s impressive 3,000 word spree by a clear 1,000 words (while also fitting in an additional thousand-word chunk of editing on the way).

I’m particularly gratified by this progress because it’s on the same chapter I stalled on—and ended up abandoning—last year. Turns out that swapping the offending chapter with the one that originally came after it has really helped it to find its place in the novel. It’s almost writing itself now.

I’m hoping I can wrap up the first draft of this chapter next week and then move on to a brand new chapter (scary/exciting). However, I’ll just be happy writing what I can while my start-of-year motivation is still firing away.

One good thing

I rewatched Mad Max: Fury Road with the Elderbeast over the weekend. It remains awesome: a truly balls to the wall road movie actioner, which also does a great job of putting its characters through a compelling emotional journey.

One of the things I admire most about this movie (other than the incredible blend of directing, editing and cinematography that makes the action sequences all but rip themselves out of the screen) is the minimal dialogue. For starters, our title character barely speaks during the first act. He’s barely a person—a presence: forcibly injected into a story that’s already happening (in fact, he’s a passenger in someone else’s story, but this is the way of all but the first of the Mad Max movies). Sure, there’s exposition later in the movie, but the vast share of the story is communicated through action and the audience just has to buckle in and stay along for the ride.

Even the main character of the movie, Furiosa (played to excellence by Charlize Theron), purposefully speaks only when necessary. Those around her are expected to follow her lead, not her instructions. 

Interestingly, the characters who do the most talking are the ones trying to maintain the apocalyptic status quo, alongside their unquestioning devotees who have developed a faith built, in large part, upon packaged, repetitive mantras and other verbal symbology.

Conversely, it’s telling that Max grows more communicative as the movie progresses. He begins (in his own words, ironically) as a broken man driven to survive for survival’s sake. However, by the end of the movie he sees a chance to redeem himself for failing all the others that were left behind. This requires him to communicate; to interact with those around him.

So what have I learned from this? For starters, this is a story that could almost certainly only work on the screen. Sure, you could do it as a graphic novel but I suspect the non-stop action panels would cease engaging the eye after a few pages. More, it’s an example of how silence can be used to build character—easier to achieve in a visual medium. Finally, it’s yet another good example of how stripping exposition to the bone can be the prompt that forces you to devise even more inventive ways of communicating what your story is.

One bad thing

One of the things I have struggled with over the last several years is that I’m not a very good reader. I find it hard to get into books, but very easy to get distracted and wander off towards other pursuits. As a consequence, I find I don’t read anywhere near as much as I need to, or even as much as I want to.

A small part of the problem is my nightly routine (spoiler: I only read at bedtime so this routine is a rather critical contributor towards my reading habits). I go to bed; I catch up on the various blogs that I subscribe to; and then I read. You might see the problem right away.

Catching up on blogs can sometimes take just a few minutes, or it can end up being a 20 minute rabbit hole at the bottom of which I’m suddenly too tired to read (or my brain is still expecting that constant zap-zap influx of information, and is no longer in the best frame for digesting a single, lengthy narrative).

The potential answer is simple: read first and browse later (and if I’m too tired to browse afterwards, well those posts aren’t going anywhere). I’ve managed to do it a couple of times this week, but it’ll take time to make it a habit. Hopefully the difference will start showing in my reading list for 2020.

2020: Week 2

(January 13 – 19)

It’s been a good writing week. I’ve taken full advantage of my extended mornings (free from having to prep the Kinderbesten for school) and written just over 3,000 new words for the novel. This falls comfortably above my target average of 600 words per day, though I expect I won’t be able to keep this rate up once the beasts return to school.

More importantly, this has very nearly brought me to the end of the chapter that I was a bit stuck on at the end of last year. I’ve stuck to my first draft philosophy—which is to just keep writing and avoid the temptation to fix potential problems—so I’m certain that a fair amount of rewriting will eventually be required, but I’m also happy with the random tangents that scenes have travelled down in some instances.

Once this chapter’s wrapped up I will be plunging straight back into the chapter that I abandoned last year. However, this time I’ve got a much better idea of where I’m starting, and where things will end up. In fact, I’m almost excited about getting stuck back in.

One good thing

The other week I talked about the very excellent Watchmen TV series. This week I’ll talk about the original graphic novel, which I’ve reread over the last two weeks. There are dozens of things I could learn from this rightfully revered comic, but the thing the moats fascinated me on this read was how Alan Moore managed to cram so much story into each individual issue?

I typically read collected volumes of comics, but something that often strikes me when I read individual issues is how rarely I feel that I’ve been given a satisfying chunk of the story. Doubtless, one of the great challenges of the comic is how to tell a story over a strictly limited number of pages; but my view is that each issue should feel like an episode of a series (or a chapter of a book), and not just one act.

While I haven’t fully digested this latest read of Watchmen, I can see that one of the tricks Moore employs is to focus each chapter (or issue) around one of the main characters. Each issue will also typically include a number of flashbacks (which can often be delivered very economically over a panel or two). There’s also a snippet or two of information to drive the main story forward.

Consequently, we get at least three things going on in the typical issue:

  • Whatever’s currently happening with the main character;
  • Some background to that character;
  • A progression of the main plot

There are almost always other things happening too: conversations between background characters; the additional texture added by the Black Freighter comic within a comic device. Equally, the detail in Dave Gibbons artwork, and even the layout of the pages at times, helps convey other story elements.

The result is that each chapter has limited plot progression, but as a reader you still walk away immensely satisfied due to the multiple threads of narrative combined presented in a richly detailed format in which barely even a frame is wasted.

This is why most mainstream stories will have at least an A and a B plot, but Alan Moore (with all due credit to Gibbons) has found a way of making all the plots in Watchmen equally important and thus indivisible from one another.

One bad thing

We may only be two weeks into the year, but I’m hoping to get my morning/weekly writing routine established as quickly as possible. As such I’ve been getting up at (or near to) 6am and doing as much writing as time allows. Over the last week I’ve noticed that my enthusiasm levels remain fairly high early in the week, and then take a noticeable dip from Wednesday on.

This is not ideal. My working theory is that I’m sufficiently refreshed from the weekend to hit the ground running on Monday, but the tedium of the general working week begins to grind me down relatively quickly and delivers a Wednesday slump. Once that’s passed I pick up again a bit, but I’d prefer to maintain a more even momentum during the week.

Obviously, it’s too early for a real pattern to emerge, but I’ll keep an eye on this and consider how I might give myself a little mid-week boost if it becomes an ongoing issue.

Making a difference: one me at a time

One of my not-resolutions / aspirations for 2020 is to make better, more ethical, more environmentally-conscious decisions about the products that I buy and the services that I use. Just two weeks into the year and I’m already making changes and investigating options for other changes. So I thought it might be a good idea to blog about it all on a semi-regular basis, so I can share my experiences and hopefully get a few tips from other people who have been down this road.

Read More

2020: Week 1

(January 6 – 12)

I finished the short story I was revisiting over the last few weeks! It’s a good feeling to start the year having finished something. And I then sent the finished story to a friend for a beta read and promptly rewrote the last 1,000 words …

Occasionally I find it hard to judge when a story is done. I might tinker on something endlessly, and not realise that it’s ready to go; or I might wrap up a story and then go back to it months later and realise that it’s fundamentally flawed. 

Getting at least one person (and, ideally, you want more) to beta read a story gives me the benefit of another opinion, and the confidence to see which bits are working and which might benefit from a little more work.

One good thing

I started a new project this week: compiling a timeline of my life. This isn’t part of any greater plan; it’s simply due to the fact that while I remember a lot of the things that happened in my life, I’m terrible at remembering when they happened.

During the course of this work, two interesting things happened. Firstly, I found a pile of letters from some pen pals that I had completely and utterly forgotten about. I feel quite ashamed and embarrassed about this, given that we clearly exchanged letters for a couple of years. I scanned through several of these letters, trying to pick through the mystery of who these people where, and why I had no memory of them. Finally, in one of the letters, they had enclosed a photo. Now, the photo I did remember, and seeing it was my first assurance that there was some part of this epistolary relationship that I could be sure really happened.

As a separate part of this exercise, I was walking through Google Streetview trying to locate a place where I used to live many … many years ago. My youngest son came to watch, and I ended up showing him my old school as well as the house I grew up in. 

In doing so I reflected that these would simply be pictures of buildings for him. There would be no context, no memories. For me, however, those images would be associated with all manner of stories and history. The images were simply a cue to the various memories.

It all made me realise a couple of things. For one, my memory is strongly visual. I have a very poor memory for dates and details, but I remember visuals. I may not recall addresses, but I can see every place I lived in. I don’t remember the dates, but I remember the occasion of almost every film I went to see at the cinema. This realisation reassured me a fair amount that I don’t necessarily have a terrible memory for things; I simply remember them a different way.

The other thing I took away from all this was how our memories become stories, and that’s how they survive. When showing my youngest the images of my childhood, the only way they’ll become more than mere buildings is if I start to tell him stories about my life inside them. Then those stories become his memories. If one of them captures his imagination it could become a story that he, in turn, passes on.

This, obviously, is how civilisations and cultures traditionally preserved their history: by turning memories into narratives that could be shared. Stories live longer than memories, after all.

One bad thing

Tied into my targets for this year is the need to be more disciplined and focused with my writing. One of the steps I pledged to take towards achieving that is not having my phone sitting next to me on the desk when I write (since I will inevitably pick it up and start browsing social media as soon as my mind wanders).

More often than not, I’m still finding that my phone is there on the desk, but I have made a point of moving it to the other side of the room when this happens. This is already proving beneficial: when my attention wanders now, the interruption is only for a few seconds, and there’s less of a cognitive leap to get back into writing mode.

Also, if I do feel compelled to grab my phone, at least I have to get out of the chair and stretch my legs to do it, which is another net benefit.

2020: Week 0

(January 1 – 5)

Before we begin, a few quick notes on the blog format for 2020. As with last year, the intention is to have my blog posts focus mostly on writing. I also want to make them a little more straightforward to write (and as a consequence, one hopes, better to read). Last year I ended up getting a bit drawn into endless write-ups on films and books, and while I do like writing about films/books/podcasts that inspire me, I’ve decided that I don’t need to write something about every single bit of media I consume. Therefore you’ll see two brand new sections below this one, with a little intro on each.

For the curious, I’ve labelled this first post as ‘Week 0’ partly because it’s not a full week (I’m stubbornly starting from Jan 1, instead of the closest Monday) but also because this week has been less about actual writing and more about setting things up for this year.

So what needs setting up? One of the first things I habitually do at the end of the year (or, more realistically, at the start of the new one) is to analyse my writing stats from the previous 12 months. That typically requires some extra time to update all of my daily totals in my tracker, to write them up in a blog post, and to then set up the tracker for the new year (and if anyone’s interested in checking out the spreadsheet I use for this, I’m always happy to share).

Next comes the blog. I’m usually a fair bit behind on the blog by the end of the year, but I always have my notes written up, and the Christmas break gives me the free time needed to turn them into readable blog posts. Once that’s out of the way, I finally feel mentally ready to set up the blog for the new year. This is usually requires nothing more than setting up a fresh Google Docs template to use, but as always part of the thrill of the new year (for me) is getting to start something new. That means I like to tweak the format (as covered above) and make sure the template is juuust right. 

For this year, the main change has been putting a table at the top of the template for me to log everything I’ve watched, read and listened to. Clearly this is not something that’s going on the eventual blog posts, but I find it tremendously helpful to have an ongoing log such as this.

And now, once all that’s done—cleaned up the old and prepared the new—I’m ready to begin.

Learning from the good

This new-ish section of the blog is for me to pick one thing that I’ve learned from something that I’ve watched, read or listened to, and which will hopefully contribute towards me becoming a better writer. That’s it. A bit like last year’s blog, but more focused.

One of my very modest ambitions for the two-week Christmas break was to finally sit down and watch the new Watchmen series. Now, watching nine episodes over two weeks might not seem that ambitious, but having two kids means I can only watch in the evenings (once the Kinderbeast has settled down—and sometimes one episode can take a loooong time to get through if the beast is not settled), and Christmas shenanigans means that my available number of evenings is also reduced (but for the best reasons).

I’d held off watching the show until now mostly because of Damon Lindelof who, in my experience, is a writer who distributes massive plot-holes and dangling threads throughout his work, and then fails to stick the landing. For that reason, I’d already decided to wait until the show had concluded before considering it safe to venture forth.

Well, the short version is that I’m now ready to completely reappraise my view of Lindelof because Watchmen is an incredible show that holds together from the very first moment, to the final scene. In a year that has seen some incredible television, this is easily one of the best shows I’ve watched.

But what have I learned from Watchmen? One of my favourite aspects of the show is the way it parachutes you directly into its world without any hand-holding. There are things going on which don’t get explained until towards the end of the series. There are numerous tiny details—things which distinguish this as a very different world from our own—that the viewer is not only required to notice by themselves, but are trusted to. Because of this, far from feeling lost and confused, I was utterly gripped right from the first scene. I didn’t always know what was going on, but I knew I wanted to find out, and I knew that I would be given all of the information eventually. Every moment was like its own little cliffhanger, built with the promise of a pay-off to the patient viewer.

It takes skill to do this, to bury exposition into every scene, but it also takes courage to trust that the viewers will join you for that ride. We see so many films and shows where everything is explained to us. For comparison, check the first episode of Daybreak (which I really liked) which makes an admittedly stylistic choice to use narration to set the scene, but still requires that you’ve fully understood the world you’re in by the end of the first episode.

In my own writing I naturally try to keep exposition to a minimum—since exposition is the enemy of good writing—but I’ll look back on Watchmen as evidence that you can trust the reader so long as the world you’re building is compelling and fully realised.

Fixing up the bad

This section is for me to look at an area of my life that requires some degree of improvement. Ideally writing related, but probably not every week since that’s likely to get repetitive in short order.

Before the New Year I’d considered taking a break from social media. There are a few reasons for this: mostly that it’s depressing to see how awful [a small minority of] people can be; but also because the people in charge of platforms like Twitter and Facebook seem to have no interest in cleaning things up and working harder to protect their more vulnerable customers (or products, if you like). So, it’s hard for me to keep supporting platforms that work this way.

But, there is also a lot of good on social media: I engage with friends there; I keep up with news; I learn things every day that help broaden my understanding of the world. Hence the idea of taking a break, just to see if I missed it or not.

In the end, I did not take a break as whatever it was that was driving me to do so seemed to diminish over the last couple of weeks of the year. Maybe it was Christmas spirit 😉

Instead, I’ve decided to take a more active approach to blocking people. If I encounter anyone that I feel compelled to engage with in a negative way, or that really makes me despair of humanity, then I simply block them: out of sight, out of mind. There’s a risk that it will turn my twitter into a bit more of an echo chamber, but my opinion remains that you should tolerate and analyse a wide range of views, beyond your own, but you don’t extend that courtesy to Nazis or to people who actively promote harm to others. You do not tolerate the intolerable, and you do not offer balance to those who have no intention of engaging in good faith in the first place.

And, so far, it’s working.

2019: the year in writing

So the stats are in and, while I’ve had some decent writing successes over the year, 2019 was a notably less productive year than 2018.

Before we get to the [boring] stats, here are the highlights:

  • I wrote (and completed) 4 brand new short stories;
  • I re-edited and/or completed an additional 8 short stories;
  • I wrote the first 25,000 words of a new novel

The not-so-highlights include:

  • 2 stories were started but not completed;
  • The other novel that I started back in 2018 still stands unfinished at 34,000 words (though I did, at least, do a fair bit of work on it this year);
  • I had honestly expected to wrap up the first draft of the new novel by this point

So, I’m happy to take the victories—any writing done is good progress—but I would have liked to have seen at least one of the novels not finish the year in a state of limbo.

The stats

I record (with varying accuracy) my word counts each day, along with whether I’ve written new words, edited existing words, or not done any writing at all. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, which means I can look at the trends year on year and learn a few things about my writing habits.

Here are the writing stats:

MonthWrite TotalWriting DaysAverage
2019 totals44,142116381
2018 totals91,589143640
2017 totals34,67965534
2016 totals46,71772649
2015 totals85,548118725

Straight up it’s clear that it’s not been a great year for writing new words. With a reasonable degree of confidence I can surmise that the much higher stats for 2015 and 2018 come down to me being focused on writing (yet not finishing) novels. Yes, I was also working on novels in 2019, but at a much slower pace.

So, the number of days I spent writing in 2019 was pretty good, but my average word count was way down. Clearly either distraction, or lack of inspiration and/or motivation were issues here.

Side note: another reason the 2018 total is much higher is that I decided to include words written for my blog that year (which would still only account for another 25-30k words max). From 2019 I continued to record when I wrote for my blog (as in it still gets counted as a writing day) but I don’t record the word counts (because I want the word counts to be entirely about my fiction writing). This, obviously, makes the average word count a bit lower.

Now let’s look at the editing stats:


Edit TotalEditing DaysAverage
2019 totals91,782105874
2018 totals93,77097967
2017 totals91,50897943
2016 totals147,5471421,039
2015 totals130,8651031,271

It’s impossible to properly estimate how many words get edited in any given session, so I simply take the final word count for whatever chunk of prose I’ve worked on that day. Sometimes that total will include new words that I’ve written, and sometimes it will include big chunks of text that I’ve deleted. Either way, since I typically do two further drafts of each story, the editing word count usually ends up being twice that of the writing word count. Maths, yo.

Again, not my most productive year by a long shot, but consistent with the writing stats.

Finally, stats for the number of days in the year that I’ve worked on my writing projects (whether writing or editing)


Total CrunchedTotal DaysDays Missed
2019 totals135,924221144
2018 totals185,359240125
2017 totals126,187162203
2016 totals194,264214161
2015 totals216,413221144

Based on those figures, it’s been an average year. It’s never going to come close to being every day, since I don’t make myself write every single day. For starters, I usually take Saturday off, which means I miss 52 days right from the outset. Then there’ll always be days when I’m sick, or simply too tired to write, or am otherwise not in a position to write (e.g. away on holiday). All the same, I’d like to miss fewer days in future.

Which brings us to …

2020 Targets

For 2020 (and, in fact, for the first time) I’ve decided to set myself some targets in the interests of staying on track and improving on some of the 2019 figures. Those targets are:

  • Total words written: 55k words 
    • Average words written per day: 600 words
  • Total words edited: 100k words 
    • Average words edited per day: 1,000 words
  • Days spent writing/editing: 260 days (min)
    • Days missed: 90 (max)

Those targets don’t necessarily correlate (mathematically) with one another, but each gives me room for improvement (without being ludicrously overambitious) and, to be honest, I’ll be happy if I meet, or exceed, just two or three of them.

Making it work

There’s no point having targets if there’s no plan for achieving them, so here are a few things I’m going to do in order to [help] make it all happen:

  • Get up early. I’ve written about this fairly extensively elsewhere on the blog, but one of the biggest issues I had last year was that my morning routine changed and I ended up with less time in the mornings to write. I was able to correct this towards the end of the year simply by getting up earlier. This proved to be much easier than expected, so I anticipate this making a big difference for the new year.
  • No phone. I’ve noticed, particularly of late, that I tend to reach for my phone as soon as my mind starts wandering during my writing sessions. Once that happens, it’s all too easy to get sucked into social media and get even more distracted from writing words. So, one of the things I’ll be doing this year is removing that potential source of distraction by ensuring my phone is always out of reach whenever I’m writing. 
  • Always write. This will be the hardest to implement. I have a reasonably good sense for when the words simply aren’t going to happen, and typically don’t force myself to write when I know it’s basically going to be mental torture. That said, I’ve probably gone a little too easy on myself over the last year so I’m going to take a more disciplined approach. Even on the bad days, if I can just sit down for 15 minutes and get a handful of words written, it’ll still be better than getting nothing done.

And, of course, I will continue to track my word counts through the year so we can all come back and do this again in 12 months’ time. See you then 😉

… my only friend

(December 22 – 28)

Woohoo! The story is finished! There’s not really much left to say at this point, other than let the story speak for itself. You can read it on Vocal.

Watching

With two weeks of not having to go to work, I decided that it was finally time to settle down and ‘binge’ the new Watchmen TV series. So far it’s every bit as good as everyone says it is, but my version of bingeing is a maximum of two episodes an evening (less if I get interrupted by kids) and not every evening is going to be free for TV viewing, so we’ll see how I go—and there will be thoughts when I’m done.

I did manage to finish up The Mandalorian however, so here are some thoughts on that. Firstly, this was a fun ride through the Star Wars universe; don’t expect anything more than that, and you’ll have a fun time watching it. Also, Baby Yoda is a stroke of genius—you can be as cynical as you want about why Baby Yoda was created in the first place, but he’s the character that keeps us coming back to the show each week.

There were some minor issues. The first three episodes tell a compelling ongoing story (and one of the best tricks The Mandalorian pulls is to make you think it’s a bounty hunter show, only to tell you in the second episodes that it’s a Lone Wolf and Cub show instead) and definitely earn the ‘chapter x’ prefix that each episode bears. Unfortunately, it actually does then devolve into a bounty of the week format for several episodes which, more than anything, gives the impression that the show is treading water—a bit unforgivable when the series is only eight episodes long. Things come back together for the two-part finale, but I would rather all eight ‘chapters’ had been used to tell a cohesive long-form story.

Reading

I’ve already been distracted away from Norse Mythology.

ComiXology had one of its infamous, wallet-draining sales on so I picked up a few treats. First was a digital expanded edition of Watchmen, which I shall read once I’ve finished the show. In addition to that I picked up two collected volumes of Kieron Gillen’s amazing Darth Vader comic—which does an excellent job of taking the character of Vader from the slightly risible one-dimensional villain we see in A New Hope, to the ultimate galactic badass of Empire Strikes Back. I’m particularly looking forward to revisiting Doctor Aphra and her psychotic droids that hilariously parallel R2-D2 and C3-PO.

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