Archives for November 2016

Nanowrimo Done

Did I win Nanowrimo? Yes, yesterday at about 10:30 am. I kept at it today just so I could get the badge for writing 30 days in a row. I am a sucker for gamification. Once I set out to collect badges, the completist in me keeps niggling away until I get as many as possible.

Badges

Do I have a novel written? No. Nothing like it. I have 50960 words in a collection of scenes arranged in a structure that bears some resemblance to that of a novel. It has a beginning and a middle, but as yet it has no end. It is certainly going to turn out to be longer than fifty thousand words which is the goal of Nanowrimo.

I think many of the individual scenes are great, and the order they are placed in suggests a narrative of sorts. But I have a long way to go before the first draft is finished, let alone the novel completed and edited.

Am I happy with what I have written? Strangely, yes. It is rough, but it is the core of a good book. It did not turn out quite as I expected it. What novel ever does? In this case, things deviated even further from my rough outline than usual, but that does not trouble me. I found answers to questions I did not know I had.

Enough of the question and answer format. I learned some things this Nanowrimo, as I usually do when I sit down to write, and as I all too often forget mere weeks after that writing is done.

The main thing is that sprints work for me. No matter how sick I was, and I was plenty sick this November, with vertigo and flu and RSI, I was never so sick that I could not set a timer for 10 minutes and write till the alarm sounded.

After the first sprint, it became easier to do the next one. Many a day, it would take me ages to set that timer. Once I did, I forced myself to write anywhere between 300 and 500 words.

Once it was done, I could talk myself into going for a second one. After that, I assured myself, I could give up for the day if I really wanted to.

But, by the end of the second timer, I was usually well on my way to a thousand words. I could probably achieve it in less than ten minutes, so let’s just set the timer again and start.

And I would hit one thousand words before the timer went, so why not keep on going until the end? At that point, it was only another four hundred words or so to hit the Nanowrimo daily goal of 1666 words, so why not just set that last timer and try for it?

Some mornings, once I hit the daily average, I was in spitting distance of two thousand words, which would give me a nice cushion against future failure. And so it went. On the worst days, there might be half an hour breaks between ten-minute sprints, but I still managed them in the end.

The main thing was simply showing up and doing the work. I think the structure of Nanowrimo, the daily badges, the charts that show your progress, the rewards for hitting milestones all helped motivate me on days when I otherwise might just have stayed in bed. There was also the social pressure of not wanting to admit failure having publically announced my participation.

To get all touchy-feely for a moment, even the fact that I knew I was participating in a once-a-year global event helped. People I know here in Prague were also involved in the project. I even attended a write-in. I am sure the fact that humans are social animals had something to do with my making progress.

In all of these ways Nanowrimo was useful and I cheerfully donated my money to the cause. (It did not hurt that I got another badge too, and a tasteful halo around my author picture on their site.)

Downsides? There were days when I was writing filler. I did the words just to boost my count, and I will most likely have to cut such scenes out when the edit comes. One or two will probably be distilled down into paragraphs. Others will go completely.

That said, there were days when I sat down to write scenes and I had no idea what was going to come out of them. Some of these scenes were pure gold. Characters would reveal their motivation. Huge plot points would be resolved in sentences of revelatory dialogue. Things that changed the direction of the whole book ambushed me. I would never have found these things if I had not just sat down and written.

In general, I tend to be an exploratory writer. Often things only become clear to me once the writing is under way. I often start with detailed outlines but still things mutate and change. Sometimes, I don’t know what I am really writing about until the book is well under way and something happens that brings everything into focus.

Scrivener helps. It makes it easy to write in scenes and shuffle those scenes into a new order with a drag and a drop.

Speech recognition helps when the RSI gets bad, but I ended up using it less than I expected. I am most comfortable at a keyboard I guess. The habits of more than thirty years are hard to change. Sometimes, for a change of pace, I used the Freewrite or speech recognition or Byword on the Mac. Shaking things up helps when you’re stuck or lacking motivation.

So here’s my formula for Nanowrimo. Use a timer. Work a little every day, usually in sprints. Use whatever text editor is at hand. Have a plan of sorts. Keep everything together in Scrivener. Cut and paste it in by the end of the day. Track your word count.

Oh and don’t trust the word counter in Scrivener, Byword, Ulysses or Microsoft Word. All of them came up long. I had a count that was over 50K in all of them. When I cut and pasted my text into Nanowrimo’s verifier, the total came up fourty-nine thousand and something words. Aim to write a few hundred words over 50000 in any of those text editors. Lesson learned. And that’s it, until next year.


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Nanowrimo Week 3

So it’s Week 3 of National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) and I am still plugging away. I’ll be honest, it’s been a lot harder than I expected due to the resurgence of my vertigo. This makes writing on a computer anything but pleasant.

I’ve soldiered on and as of yesterday afternoon I had reached 40657 words. I’ll probably add at least another thousand to that total today so I am still on target to make 50000 words by the end of the month. If things go according to plan,touch wood, I’ll get even further.

I’ve made some discoveries in the last week. When you throw yourself planless and headlong into a new novel, the story can take unexpected twists. Several things about Extinction Event surprised me. One of them came totally out of the blue.

Our hero, Stormtrooper 13, is a sort of cross between Judge Dredd and a starship trooper. He had a chip in his head which records everything so that his memories can be uploaded and stored off-site. They can then downloaded into a clone body in the event of his death. He can also play these memories back in a virtual reality system, experiencing them again if he so chooses.

At one point, he comes across a bookmarked memory of how he met his now permanently dead wife. It was a strange, sad experience quite unlike anything I was expecting to be writing in a military SF novel. It showed the central character in a different light. I don’t know where such scenes come from. They just emerge onto the page.

A second development was the nature of the adversaries. Extinction Event is about the emergence of one of those world-shattering, civilisation-destroying mega-foes. I was expecting something like SkyNet. When our heroes finally encountered the menace, it proved to be something much more Lovecraftian. It turns out that my universe was stranger than I imagined. This will call for some rewriting of the earlier material, of course, but I am happy with it.

I am still finding the sprint is the way to go. I have been setting my timers for between 10 and 15 minutes and then writing as fast as I can.

I broke out the Freewrite at the weekend. There have been a couple of firmware updates that have made it more reliable, and I wanted to put the machine to work. In one way, the excellent keyboard combined with an e-ink screen is a disadvantage. I type faster than the words appear and I often don’t notice mistakes until I am long past them. I find in such cases the best thing to do is just ignore the errors and push on. I can clean up my typos later on something else.

The automatic syncing to Dropbox is a joy for this. It just works. I found with the Freewrite that I didn’t get any more written during my sprints than I would on a normal computer. I did get more words written in a shorter space of time because there were no distractions. I could not check my email or look at a website, so instead I wrote. In this respect, the Freewrite does its job.

On the worst days, when sitting at a computer was not an option, I dictated into my phone. I sat in my flat, spoke in short bursts then watched as my words were uploaded to Dropbox and automatically transcribed by Dragon Naturally Speaking. Once this was done, I cut and pasted the text into Scrivener.

Often for Nanowrimo, the key to progress is just to keep going. I did hit a point where I was stuck. I knew what my ending was, but I could not see how to get from where I was to there. So I did a reverse outline.

I wrote a brief description of the final scene, then asked myself what would be the logical step leading up to this. I wrote that scene and then repeated the process until I had gotten all the way back to where I was stuck. Once I had the outline done it was easy to start making progress again.

There were also times when I did not feel like writing the next scene in my outline. I gave myself permission to skip that scene for now and picked a different one from my reverse outline. I found myself skipping backward and forwards through it adding scenes here and there. This is not something I usually do. Normally I go for linear progress from start to finish with no shortcuts between. Still, needs must when the devil drives.

This did have the advantage of giving me clues as to what needed to happen earlier. Characters would refer to events that had already happened and clue me in on their outcomes. I don’t know why my subconscious found it easier to feed me information in this way, but it did. I could also see who survived the earlier battles by noting who was present in the later scenes.

Looking back at what I wrote last week, I can see that I coped with being stuck then in a similar way. I wrote a mini-outline that moved me forward and interpolated new scenes with old ones. It seems that even when I don’t do detailed outlines for a book and decide to wing it, I end up doing them later. I am sure there is a lesson here somewhere.

So, anyway, the end is in sight now. I have 10K more to do and a week to do it in. I should be able to manage to complete this book in time for the next blog post. That has the sound of famous last words. I guess we will find out.


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Nanowrimo: Halfway Mark

So it’s the 16th of November, and we’ve passed the halfway mark for National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). On the 15th I hit 25079 words on Extinction Event, thus keeping me on target. I had hoped to be further along but as they say no plan survives contact with the enemy. In my case, the enemy happens to be a particularly pernicious case of vertigo. It leaves me dizzy a lot of the time and low-level nauseous for most of it. Not the best circumstances to be writing a novel under.

That said, I have soldiered on, relying on that old Nanowrimo standby, the sprint. By this I mean I set a timer for as long as I think I can stand it, sit down and just write my story. There have been times when the timer has been set for as low as two minutes, but here’s the thing– I can still write 100 words or more in two minutes.

According to Writeometer, my last two-minute sprint was for 107 words. If your goal is to hit 1666 words per day, you can do this with 16 two minute sprints. I don’t recommend this for purposes of getting into the flow, but it helps build the word counts.

Perhaps it is the illness, but I slammed into the wall with this book quite hard at the end of last week. I just felt like what I was writing was dull and not worth reading, and I had my doubts about keeping going. Today, looking at it, I can see it is no worse than my usual stuff, but back then I was cursing myself as useless.

It’s a reminder of how much of writing is a mind game. Just keeping yourself going can be a chore sometimes. To be fair to my critical faculties, I can see reasons why I had my doubts. While the individual scenes were readable, the cumulative effect was not achieving the effect I had hoped.

My original outline called for a chaotic multi-sided battle between a number of factions. It was a fight both epic and anarchic, with corporate mercenaries slugging it out with state-sponsored cyborg ninjas, an intervention from an alien hivemind, and our heroes caught in the middle. When I wrote it out scene by scene, it became schematic. I was so busy laying things out so they would be clearly understandable for the reader that I lost the sense of chaos you get in a real battle.

I eventually took myself aside, did a breakdown of what I had written and asked myself what had gone wrong. I then rewrote the sequence starting with an anarchic space drop and progressing to a much more exciting combination of the old scenes and new. I’m not saying it’s the best solution but it was a solution and it got things flowing again. Now the story is racing along again. Complications are piling up nicely, and I think I can see a way forward to the ending I had planned.

When I was younger, there was a good chance I would simply have given up when I started to feel like things were going astray. I had a nasty habit of doing that back then. These days, with a bit more experience under my belt, I know that there’s very little that can’t be fixed if the underlying story is strong. Things can seem hopelessly tangled, but they can pretty much always be untangled if you are prepared to put in the work.

Any other lessons? Yep, as the Bond title goes Never say never again. I swore after my experience stacking up five Kormak novels without releasing them that I would never do that again. Yet here I am working on the second military SF novel in a series without having released the first one.

I did this because I thought I was going to be editing the first one as I wrote the second one. It turns out that for the past week I haven’t had the energy to do both. The momentum of Nanowrimo pushed me to finish what I started in order to avoid the embarrassment of public failure. I have learned some interesting stuff from writing this book that I can feed back into the first book. I can also foreshadow some of the events of the second book in the first one. It’s all useful when you’re building a new universe, as I am with this series.

I am enjoying writing in this Judge Dredd meets Starship Troopers setting. It’s pretty grimdark, but I think it’s also very funny in places. Well, it makes me laugh anyway, and that’s half the battle.

Right, enough of this blogging, it’s time to get back to the actual writing. And that’s another secret of writing success, from the great Stephen King, it’s all about application. The application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Books don’t write themselves, no matter what some people might have you believe.


If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

NaNoWriMo Again

Right now I am roughly 5000 words into my project for National Novel Writing Month. It’s only the second day of this 30-day effort to get a 50,000-word book written, but I feel like I’m making decent progress. In theory, I only have to write just over 1660 words per day to hit the target. I am trying to build some margin for error into my word counts as well as allow myself to take the weekends off.

Why am I doing this? I’m not sure that I can give a decent answer to that. I did National Novel Writing Month two years ago and enjoyed it. I skipped it last year because I was busy editing Illidan. I was quite keen to get back into the swing of things this year.

I like the discipline of it. I like having a definite goal. To be honest, I doubt that 50,000 words will be enough to finish the book that I am currently planning but it will be a good start.

I have some advantages this year over my attempt two years ago. I have something that resembles an outline. It’s pretty sketchy, only about a page but that should be enough.

The book is called Extinction Event. It’s a sequel to Armageddon Protocol, my upcoming military science fiction novel. Being the second book in a series it has a number of advantages when it comes to getting a swift first draft written.

I don’t have to come up with all of the background because it already exists in the first book. I don’t have to come up with a complete cast of characters because a whole group of them were introduced in Armageddon Protocol. There were some loose ends left in that book. Tieing these up gives me a lead into the plot of the current book. In general, if you’re interested in completing a book in National Novel Writing Month I can highly recommend doing the second book in the series.

It’s something of a strange writing process at the moment. The repetitive strain injuries to my hands are very bad at the moment. This makes typing quite painful, so I am dictating the book on my phone.

This is not quite as insane as it sounds. I have a very good voice recording program called Hi-Q MP3 Recorder. This not only allows very high-quality speech recording, but it also automatically uploads the file to Dropbox.

For transcription, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking on Windows. The Mac version is just as accurate when it comes to transcribing the files, but it lacks the batch processing functions that the Windows version has. Dragon Naturally Speaking has a transcription agent which scans a prearranged Dropbox folder and automatically transcribes any MP3 files that it finds there. It does this automatically. I don’t have to do anything. It’s just about the easiest way of transcribing text that I can think of. It’s also approximately 99% accurate.

Transcribing in this fashion has other advantages. For one thing, it looks as if you’re simply making a phone call as you dictate your latest masterwork. This can be useful if you’re out walking in a public place.

Another thing is that I am never stuck without a speech recorder if I feel the urge to dictate some text.

On top of this, I find transcription faster and more efficient in dictating into my computer. The reason for this is very simple. I can’t go back and make corrections.

This is an essential process that part of the process when you are using speech recognition software, but it hugely interrupts you if you’re trying to write. You’ll be in the middle of dictating a scene, notice a mistake and go back and make the correction. This might only take a minute or less but it gets you out of the flow, and you have to get yourself back into the writing mindset.

When you’re dictating you just tell the story. It’s that simple. You’re never out of the flow state, and it’s quite easy to get into it. I find telling the story a bit like being a gamemaster in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s something I enjoy.

In case you are wondering whether I am missing out on Dragon learning how I speak, don’t worry. The other great advantage that the Windows version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking has over its Mac cousin is that you can go back and make corrections inside your recordings.

This takes just as much time as making corrections during a dictation session on a computer but has the great advantage of separating the two parts of the process. I can tell my story, make sure it’s written and then go back and do the fiddly administrative task of teaching my speech recognition software.

The other software I use during this part of the process will come as no surprise. Once my text is transcribed, I cut and paste it into Scrivener. I can then go through and edit it by hand.

It used to be that I could tell a huge difference between text I had typed in and text that I had dictated. The transcribed speech was usually much more discursive and far less smooth.This is no longer the case since I switched to transcription. I think interrupting the flow of my writing to make corrections also caused the quality of my prose to deteriorate. Nowadays I find it hard to tell the difference between speech I have dictated until recorder and speech I have typed.

A lot of people get very excited about the possibility of dictating text because you can speak a lot faster than you type unless you happen to be a trained typist. I still find that I don’t get the huge gains that many people report because I count the time I spend correcting my text as part of my writing time.

I definitely see some improvement in word counts, but I am not getting anything like the 4000 words per hour that many people report. I can hit 2500 to 3000 words using this method. On the other hand, on a good day, I can type 2000-2400 words per hour. So as you can see you’re looking at a gain of approximately 20% in my case. Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, I appear to have drifted away from my subject matter and onto the subject of tech. Next time, I’ll try and write more about the process of composing and writing at speed.


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