Archives for November 2014

NaNoWriMo Endgame

At 16:50 yesterday I completed the first draft of my novel for NaNoWriMo. When it was validated it came to 50,039 words.

It was not all plain sailing. The last section was written while I suffered from a very bad flu. Just to complicate matters when I reached about 43,000 words I realised that my outline was going to be useless as a guide to completing the book. I originally thought that the murder mystery plot I was using was going to be a short introduction to the quest adventure. There I was 80% of the way through and the crime had just been solved and the villain had yet to be captured and punished.

Worse than that, last Saturday I found myself sitting staring at the screen, unable to come up with any way of making the plot move. I had run out of road. I thought I knew where I was going but I didn’t and it left me stumped. The flu didn’t help. I drummed my fingers and tried to make progress but it just was not happening. Eventually I asked myself what the problem was and realised that deviating from my outline had thrown me into a loop. Fortunately, there was an easy answer.

I remembered what Rachel Aaron said in her excellent book 2K to 10k and I realised that I needed a new outline. I wrote almost 3000 words telling me what was going to happen in the next 7000 words. I looked at all the plot strands that needed to be completed and I wrote a structure that closed all of the loops in a dramatically satisfying way.

Once that was done it was time to knock off for the day. I didn’t do anything for the next two days mainly because I wanted to give myself some time off from the keyboard and get over the flu. I sat down on Tuesday morning with my new outline, plugged in my microphone and started Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I started writing (or rather dictating) and it was easy as connecting the dots in a child’s puzzle. I raced through 7500 words and reached my desired word count. Done.

Do I have a complete novel? Of course not. I have a rough first draft but that’s all I expected to have. It’s going to need a thoroughgoing rewrite to make it readable. On the other hand I do have a book that surprised me. It turned out not to be at all what I expected. I thought I was going to be writing a cross-country adventure ending up in an alien fortress where mad gods were imprisoned. Turns out that’s the next book. This one deals with the hunt for a shape shifting assassin who has framed our hero for murder and who must be caught before he can unleash the aforementioned mad gods.

I’m really happy that I did this thing. I learned a lot about how to be productive. It was also a lot of fun to just let myself off the leash and improvise for a bit. I also learned that at the end of the day I am a writer who really needs the structure an outline gives.

What else did I learn?

WriteMonkey is awesome. It is stable, fast and light. It plays well with Dragon NaturallySpeaking – better than Microsoft Word in fact. I’d go so far as to say better than any word or text processor I have used. It has two huge benefits. It has an internal timer for when you’re doing sprints. It also has a partial word count feature similar to Scrivener which lets you see exactly how much you have written during those sprints. I’m not sure I would like to revise a novel in WriteMonkey but I am certain it is currently the best thing for me to write my first drafts in.

I started this month determined to write my novel in markdown. I was pretty certain that I was going to use Ulysses 3. I did for a while but I found that I preferred using WriteMonkey because of the timer and word count features. I also found that it was really excellent for one of the tricks that I learned from David Hewson’s (also excellent) Writing a Novel with Ulysses 3.

I left myself little notes in comments about would needed to be rewritten or changed. I also left little notes about upcoming plot points that needed to be foreshadowed. In WriteMonkey this is very easy you simply write a couple of frontslashes. There you have your comment. Your hands never need to leave the keyboard. Comments are ignored in the word count and when exported unless you tell WriteMonkey differently. Even better, in WriteMonkey’s document map it is very easy to find the comments so you can jump between them quickly.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking proved to be invaluable when I was suffering from RSI. It’s not something I like to use all the time but when I need it, it is excellent.

Writing sprints were the real discovery of this month for me. I never thought I could do them. The idea of writing in five minutes bursts always struck me as a bit silly. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to write 200 words in five minutes than nothing at all. There’s nothing silly about that.

Anyway, that was NaNoWriMo for me. Good luck to everyone out there who is still working away on their book!

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.

Free Stuff for NaNoWriMo

I should have known it was all going to go horribly wrong the moment I got on the plane. It wasn’t just the person on the left of me was snuffling. The person on the right was as well. As was the person in front of me and the person behind. As we took off the sounds of coughing and sneezing drowned out the engines. I could practically feel the cloud of unhealth settle on me. Father Nurgle has blessed me once more.

There was not a lot of NaNoWriMoing done last week. As of yesterday I had completed 36522 words. Looking back at last weeks blog post I can see I had managed 28000 or so. That means in seven days I’ve done roughly 8500 words. In my defence I will say there was a lot of family visiting, a lot of time spent in airports and a lot of time spent walking in the cold rain, cultivating the germs my fellow travellers on the Airbus so helpfully gave me.

This has been a useful reminder that not all drops in word count productivity have to do with writers block or the torture of being a true artist looking for the perfect place to put that so-important comma. This NaNoWriMo I have frolicked through 6000 words in an afternoon. I’ve also had days when 1700 words were trench warfare in bloody mud. The difference being that in the first case I was healthy and in the second case I was a snuffling, gurgling, sore-throated mass of disease spores.

On the plus side, during my trip The Roost Stand and Alphasmart Dana performed exactly as advertised. They were portable, rugged and very useful from an ergonomic point of view.

Writing sprints continue to be the revelation of this NaNoWriMo month. I would never have thought it possible that I could get so much done so easily. I’ve always thought I needed at least half an hour to get myself into a writing frame of mind. I was wrong. Five or ten minutes can be enough if I approach it in the right way.

And now for a public service announcement. If you are reading this on a laptop or tablet, I urge you to consider it not as a useful piece of portable electronics but as the ergonomic time-bomb it really is. Don’t wait until, like me, you are the proud recipient of numb arms, pins and needles and episodic vertigo brought on by spinal compression. Do something now.

I point you to the following bits of free software. I find them useful for forcing sensible practises on me. Both remind you to take breaks at reasonable intervals. Both can alert you to take minor breaks as well as longer term ones.

Workrave is my favourite of the two. Its for Windows and Linux. It looks less pretty than its Mac equivalent but it has more functionality. It plays you little videos showing useful exercises during your breaks.

Time Out is for the Mac and is a lot prettier. I tend to set it so that the over-ride buttons are not visible which forces me to step away from the keyboard.

I have installed these bits of software on all my machines now. They make me take one or two minute breaks every ten minutes and 10 minute breaks every half an hour. This also serves a useful function for timing my writing sprints and pomodoros so it fits in well with my workflow. It takes a little getting used to the way the programs break up your flow but the long term benefits make it worthwhile.

There’s some other stuff to report. I picked up a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 in the airport duty free store. First impressions are favourable but it deserves a review of its own. I also saw Interstellar in the IMAX. That’s three hours of my life I won’t be getting back. It needs an incoherent, spoiler-and-rage-filled rant to do its fractal stupidity (thank you for the phrase, Mr Mooney) justice and I am just too sick. Also I have to get back to NaNoWriMo.

Back next week for my final report on the event.

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.

New Toys For NaNoWriMo

So here we are in the second week of NaNoWriMo. Things are going pretty well for me. I hit just over 28000 words yesterday so I am ahead of schedule. I need to be. I am in Scotland this week visiting family. Time is tight. Last week I picked up a new toy, reactivated an old one and learned a few things.

The Roost

Possibly the most important thing from the point of view of ergonomics was that my Roost laptop stand arrived. This was recommended by excellent SF author and long-time friend Gary Gibson in the comments of this here blog and it’s proved to be well worth the 80 bucks I invested in it.

The Roost raises your MacBook (or many other laptops for that matter) to the correct height to avoid neckstrain. What’s clever about it is that it folds away to about the size of a small bundle of chopsticks and weighs almost nothing. It’s very easy to carry around with you.

I managed to spend 6 straight hours at the laptop keyboard t last weekend and write 6000 words, a feat which would normally leave me crippled for days. I was fine the next day. If you carry your laptop around a lot, and have issues with your neck and shoulders I highly recommend this.

The Alphasmart Dana

Like I said, I’m in Scotland and I’ve brought my Roost Stand with me. The Roost is great and super-portable but it does mean you need an external keyboard. No way was I carrying a full size one with me. I could have bought an Apple external keyboard but I didn’t want to spend the money.

Fortunately, I had a solution close at hand–my old Alphasmart Dana. At least I thought I had. All my attempts at charging the thing failed even when I switched batteries. I had given the Dana to my toddler Will as a toy last year when he wanted a keyboard of his own so he could play writer just like his Da.

Had he broken it? Had this rugged little device failed at last? There was only one way to find out. I took out the power pack and inserted two AA batteries. The thing fired up immediately and worked like a charm. Yes, you read that right– a twelve year old machine which had spent a year being used as a Frisbee by a two year old still functions perfectly.

The first battery came with the machine and was over a decade old. The second battery, my spare, was bought in Scotland 7 years ago. I suppose it’s not really surprising that they stopped working. What is amazing is that the Dana still works perfectly using the AAs. I don’t know how long they will last for but hopefully they will see me through my trip. And if they don’t, AA batteries are easy enough to find.

As a bonus, the Dana is perfect for distraction free writing. No internet. Great keyboard. Instant on and I do mean instant on. There is nothing you can do on it but write. It’s lightweight and tough. You can just throw it in your bag and go. The battery life is great compared to a normal laptop. I used it to get a 10 minute writing sprint done in Schiphol airport on the way over.

NaNoWriMo Update

I learned one thing from last Wednesday—when you make a public announcement of a writing goal on your blog, you will move heaven and earth to achieve it. Various things made me start late on the writing but I settled down into a routine alternating 30 minutes of writing with 10 minutes of break and battled my way up to 5K.

Thursday was a child-minding day and a long one, since I was alone in the flat until 10 pm so my goal was to just do 1000 words. I worked in 5 minute sprints on the Dana and standing upright using the top of a cabinet which is just the right height in our living room. I managed 1670 words pretty effortlessly, thus hitting the daily average required for producing 50K in a month.

On Friday I finally gave in to my obsession with outlines and wrote a 3000 word one. This meant I only had time to rack up another 1600 or so words on the actual book.

On Saturday, I hit 6000 words. The outline really paid off here because I did not have to think about what I was going to write. I just sat down and got on with it.

Sunday was a family day so I only put in 1500 words.

On Monday I was flying but I did a thousand words before I got on the plane and did some sprints at the airports so that got me a couple of thousand words.

Tuesday was a very busy day so I just did 1100 words. Today is going to be another hectic one and there’s this blog post as well so I will be grateful if I manage 1000.

Lessons Learned

Sprints are still awesome. This has been the revelation of NaNoWriMo for me. I had never really thought of working in 5 or 10 minute bursts before now. It’s a habit I will keep up long after this month is over.

Momentum makes a difference. I feel like I am going backwards now having made so much progress in the first week.

Just writing as fast as I can is important. I strongly suspect that a lot of what I am writing while be gutted during the rewrites but no matter.

There are some scenes that just need to be written even if you never use them. A good example are the two villain scenes I wrote for my NNWM novel. Both are shown from the internal POV of the villain and both are give insights into the minds of the characters.

One is surprisingly amiable. He even likes our hero, who once saved his life. This will not stop him from killing Kormak if the man gets in his way but it explains some of his attitude.

The second character who when seen from external point of views comes across as a classic psychopath turns out to be something of an idealist, a crusader for his admittedly dark cause, but one who believes utterly in what he is doing and is loyal to those he serves.

The actions of both characters when seen externally are consistent with their internal POVs but will probably be interpreted much differently by readers. I was surprised to find a more complex reading of my villains as I wrote them. Now I just need to find some ways of communicating this that have dramatic tension and advance the plot!

Anyway, that was the week that was. I shall return with another NaNoWriMo update next week.

NaNoWriMo Day Five

So here we are at the start of Day Five of the month long novel writing project. This is the first of my promised updates on how things are going.

I dived headlong into NaNoWriMo at midnight on November 1st. I wrote a quick burst of 750 words and then went to bed. Why did I do this? Because the promo email from the good folks at NaNoWriMo suggested I do so. Apparently I am a sucker for not-so-subliminal suggestions.

God alone knows how long it’s been since I tried writing fiction in the wee small hours. Must have been back in the 90s. It was kind of pleasant, tapping away at the keyboard while everybody else is asleep. I can see me doing it again sometime.

When I got up in the morning my neck was a bit sore and my arm a bit numb. I decided to write in bursts of 5 to 15 minutes in the hopes of avoiding a bad attack of RSI. By the end of the day my arm was still numb so I’m not sure how well that worked.

Burst writing was an eye-opener. I am a 9 to 5 sort of writer. I have fixed working hours, mostly during what most people think of as office hours. I tend to work in 25 minute pomodoros. My thinking was that I needed time to settle in and settle down and get my creative juices flowing. Turns out I was wrong. It’s possible for me to sit down for 5 minutes, write 200 words and then wander off and do something else.

It’s a pretty good way of doing things at the moment because I can get some typing done while the toddler is watching cartoons or deep in play. I can sit down in a cafe and drink a cup of coffee and get part of another scene down.

I know this because I spent part of Saturday doing it. It has already made my participation in NaNoWriMo worthwhile as far as I am concerned. It have written at times and in places outside my comfort zone. It has shown me how to eke out extra bits and bobs of productivity.

Saturday ended with me having written 2000 words. It was a pretty good start considering there was a lot of family activity, shopping, a dinner party and various other stuff going on.

I followed that on Sunday by racking up another 2000 words. This time 750 words were written after 9 pm in the local McDonalds. During the day, I picked up a nice limited edition Lonely Mountain themed paper notebook to keep track of my word counts in. I have inscribed NaNoWriMo: An Unexpected Journey on the title page. My shoulder was now numb and my neck was aching.

Monday is one of the days I am on child-minding duties. It’s a frantic whirl of chasing a toddler around the flat, taking him for walks, keeping him amused and telling him stories.

My new Plantronics microphone arrived from Amazon just as we were returning from our regular trip down the Funicular. (If you are ever in Prague I recommend you try this by the way.) I decided to put it to good use while Will was having his post-lunch nap.

I used DragonDictate on the MacBook. I needed to do some training to set up the new microphone but once that was out of the way I managed an easy 600 words. Speech recognition seemed to work well. Unfortunately, when I returned to using it later in the evening, things did not go quite so well. This flakiness is quite typical of DragonDictate on the Mac. There are times I swear by it and there are times when I swear at it. Still I managed another 2000 words or so. A pattern is emerging here.

Tuesday swung around, my first actual work day of the week. I thought good– I’ll put in a full day and add 5000 words to my total. Ho-bloody-ho! DHL decided there would be customs problems with importing my Roost notebook stand. My MacBook went on the fritz and my arm got really sore. The email program on my Windows PC started to give me gip as well. I spent an hour sorting this. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong.

I buckled down, switched on Dragon Naturally Speaking on my games machine and managed to write 3000 words on the novel. I would probably have managed more but Radka was at home with the baby. I always feel self-conscious dictating fiction when there are other people in the flat.

And what about the writing itself? Going pretty well considering I have only the vaguest of notions as to where I am heading. I started with what I thought was going to be a sinister scene and found that I was writing a comedy. My imagination often pulls such stunts. I’ll just need to drag the story kicking and screaming back on course.

So that was my first four days of NaNoWriMo. I am looking at a current total word count of 9103.

Once, I’ve finished this post, my plan is to devote today to making some progress while waiting for DHL to deliver the Roost. I shall risk of incurring the wrath of the Bad Luck gods and announce I’m aiming to add another 5000 words. Let’s see how that goes. There will probably be an earthquake.

If anybody is looking for a writing buddy, I can be found here.

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.