Posts Tagged ‘NaNoWriMo’

I decided over the weekend to stop doing NaNoWriMo this year. Not because of NaNo itself, but because of how it fits in with everything else I’m doing at the moment.

NaNoWriMo was, for me, meant to be as much a social tool as a motivational one, a way to get to meet other writers in the area and talk with people about writing. I have other ways to get myself motivated to write a lot, and right now they’re working fine. But the irony is that NaNo itself, alongside my other workload, meant I had no time for the socialising and contact making it was meant to be about. I’d loaded myself up a little too heavily to fit that in.

And while I could just about keep up with NaNo while keeping up with my freelance work, I couldn’t do either as well as I wanted. I didn’t have the flexibility to play catchup if something disrupted one or the other chunk of writing, or to properly plan ahead and build in the flexibility to avoid setbacks.

It’s been an interesting experiment, and I’ve got some good work out of it, but I’m calling it here. I’m not going to do my NaNo 50k this year, and given my reasons, I’m perfectly happy with that.

On the double plus side, this means I can get back to the work editing my own existing stories that I was playing with before NaNo, so that should mean more stories see the light of day soon.

Good luck to those of you still doing NaNo. And now I’m off to write!

Lies - High ResolutionThe snapper leaves looked like giant green tacos hanging from the vine, folding and unfolding in a languid breeze. All the plants were bigger on these low gravity worlds. You could have slept wrapped in a leaf.

‘Cut ‘em off at the stem,’ Dwight said, pointing at the fruit, each berry a bright globe a foot across. They looked as appetising as the toxic dirt from which they grew, blue fruit on an orange planet, a bright place that burned the eyes. ‘One in five of y’all pushes the trolleys, the rest fill ‘em with fruit. Full trolleys get emptied into the hopper. When the second hopper’s full y’all can have a rest and some water.’

Dwight’s eyes screwed up in something that fell short of cunning. ‘I catch any of you greasers slacking, you can forget about gettin’ paid.’

He handed out the tools, hooked knives blunt from long use and barrows with wheels that wobbled and stuck. No-one stopped to fix them. We knew that trap. You spent half an hour sharpening blades or tightening screws, then the farmer said that wasn’t what they hired you for. They got better tools, and you lost half an hour’s pay. Even at three bucks an hour, that wasn’t something our band of travelling labourers could afford. We’d traded our blankets for food in the spring, pushed past endurance by lean bellies and screaming children. Now winter was coming, soon the work would dry up, and we needed warmth and dried beans to see us through.

We set to work. The vines had sharp ridges and even my calloused palms were soon scraped raw from pushing them aside to reach the fruit. No matter which way I approached, one of those big damn leaves would flop down in my way, forcing me to move them. I asked Dwight if we could cut down the leaves. He snorted.

‘Damn plants are worth more than your planet-drifting ass. Don’t you cut shit without I say so, or you’ll be sorry.’

As the day wore on the leaves opened wider, unfurling soft pink tendrils and spines like long, dripping needles. We all tried to keep away from them, but after a lunch of grass-seed tacos and cheap re-pork we were sent into the heart of the snapper field, where the biggest fruits lay.

‘An’ there’s a bonus for the best fruit,’ Dwight declared with unconvincing bonhomie. How he’d judge who got the best I didn’t know. Probably the girl with the best tits and most compliant smile. But it got everyone going again, hooked knives flashing in the shadows beneath the stalks.

The leaves were real close now. They seemed to be sinking as they spread, forming a veined green wall all around us, until there was no way out of the field without pushing them aside. It was a relief to be sheltered from the sweltering sun, but the rustle of the creeping green made my hair stand on end.

I heard a sound like a branch snapping and a muffled scream. Spinning around, I saw little Evo’s trolley standing deserted. Next to it was a leaf, folded over on itself with lumps and bumps wriggling inside it. I ran. I could hear Evo’s indistinct cries of alarm as he tried to struggle out of the leaf. Blood dripped from its tip, then stopped as the plant closed up tight.

I raised my knife and tried to cut the leaf open, but I couldn’t get the cutting edge inside the hook against the broad surface of the leaf, and the tip was too blunt to break through the membrane.

Others came running as I yelled. Chiquita, her mind as sharp as her features, instantly took in what had happened. She turned and ran for help, but a leaf snapped shut around her as she brushed past.

The snap of closing leaves and screams of their victims rose all around me as the others rushed to help or fled for safety. The full leaves rose through the canopy, swollen green bodies swaying against the cloudless sky.

My heart was pounding. I wanted to run, to scream, but I forced myself to stay calm. I flattened against the ground and crawled between the stems, dodging the tendrils that curled out of the leaves, licking the ground as they searched for food. Whenever one came near I froze, hardly daring to breath in case I caught its attention. It was a couple hundred yards to the edge of the field, but getting there took the longest half hour of my life. Bad as it was hearing my friends’ screams, worse still was the gurgling that followed, as they disolved in the snappers’ digestive juices.

Dwight stood beyond the edge of the field, smoking a cheap cigarette and grinning to himself, a shotgun slung over his shoulder as he watched his crops getting fed. He didn’t see me crawl out from among the roots, covered as I was in dust. He didn’t even think to look for escapees, had clearly seen this a dozen times before and knew there was way out.

He knew wrong.

I crept around behind him, my footfalls masked by the horrible gurgling, a curved knife still in my hand. I grabbed his hair, yanked his head back and, in the moment before he could react, hooked the knife round his throat. It might have been blunt, but I was strong with anger and it was sharp enough for the job. I harvested one final fruit.

I found a lighter in Dwight’s pocket and an oil drum around back of his trailer. When I’d finished with them I ran, not looking back until dusk. When I finally turned I saw flames filling the snapper field, bright orange as the toxic ground. Burning as fiercely as my grief.



‘Day Labour’ was first published in AlienSkin back in 2010. It’s also one of the stories in my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, coming out on Monday – you can pre-order it for the Kindle now.


NaNoWriMo update:

I’m writing this at 5.30om on Thursday, when I haven’t done my daily NaNo writing yet, but I’m pretty confident I will. I’m still a couple of days behind, but work is more under control and currently involves a couple of editing days, leaving my writing brain free for City of Blood and Steam, my NaNo novel. So maybe now’s the time to catch up.

It looks like I won’t be hitting the monstrous 200k writing all in that this month threatened. Editing days mean I won’t be writing quite so much on the freelance project, and I recycled an old story for today’s blog post. Still, we’re looking at over 150k in 30 days, including my 50k of NaNo, and I’m pretty much on track for that.

The power of doing nothing

Posted: November 10, 2014 in writing life
Tags: , ,
This guy knows how to live.

This guy knows how to live.

Yesterday I did nothing. I don’t mean literally nothing – I watched about a dozen episodes of House and played some Minecraft, but in terms of writing, planning and other story productivity? Nothing.

This might sound like a backwards step in a month when I have immense amounts of words to get down on the screen, and when I’d already fallen behind last week, but actually it’s one of the best things I’ve done recently. The very fact that I was able to sit and watch that much TV without feeling the urge to do something else at the same time, that tells me that I needed a rest. And my shoulders feel much better for a solid chunk of time away from the keyboard.

We’re programmed to think of rest time as unproductive. Whether it’s Catholic guilt or the Protestant work ethic or capitalism’s demands that we participate in an endless cycle of production and consumption, we all have some voice in the back of our brain telling us to fill the time. Maybe yours, like mine, is less one lone voice and more a chorus. But resting lets your body and your brain reset, it lets them be productive in healing and recovering while you sit back and relax. And it leaves you all the more productive afterwards. Sometimes, even when you don’t want it, you need that.


NaNoWriMo update:

So yes, I’m now a couple of days’ worth of writing behind. Also I nearly finished my current chapter and need to plan the next one before writing much further. Hoping to get on top of some of it this evening, but the shoulders are still a achy and paid work has to be the priority. I’m trying to talk myself around to the place of accepting that I might not hit 50k and that that’s OK, while still staying motivated and aiming for it. And with nearly 12,000 words done already, even it I quit now (which I won’t) I’d have got something productive out of it. NaNo was definitely worth doing.


Photo by Umberto Salvagnin via Flickr creative commons.

Around three in the morning Bradley realised that the grief was too much for him. A shape had appeared on the hospital bed, curled up beside Jen in the soft light from the bedside lamp. A baby, as small and wrinkled and perfect as he had always imagined, curled up in a white blanket. A hallucination taunting his sleepless brain.

The infant opened its eyes, peered around with the unfocused gaze of a new-born. Bradley wanted to reach out and take it in his arms, to hold it safe and close.

‘You’re not real,’ he whispered. Jen wouldn’t hear him, she was too wiped out by morphine and blood loss, but the louder he spoke the more real this would be. ‘We lost you.’

The words struck him as hard as the blood that had trickled down Jen’s leg, the look of horror on her face as they sped through the dusk shrouded streets to the hospital.

The baby lifted a hand, reaching out towards Bradley. Already it had grown, face filling out, eyes widening to stare across Jen towards him. It still looked only a few months old, but he could see that it had Jen’s eyes.

It? She. The baby was a girl.

Bradley shrank back into his chair, pulling away from the bedside. A nurse looked in through the window, smiled sadly at him and moved on. But behind her a little old lady peered in, smiled and waved at the baby.

‘You can’t be real,’ Bradly whispered, but he reached out across Jen, lifted the baby up in his arms. She was just like he had imagined her, and yet so much more. That smile, those eyes, the tiny fingers curling around his own.

The breath caught in Bradley’s throat. He felt as if he were choking on the enormity of loss.

‘I can’t…’ he whispered. ‘I can’t hold you. You aren’t real.’

Tears poured down his cheeks. His whole body shook to the rhythm of his sorrow.

‘I miss you,’ he said. ‘I never met you but I miss you. How does that happen? How do you love someone who never got to live?’


He looked up at the murmur of his name. Jen’s eyes were open, tears in them too. He made to lift the baby up for her to see, but the little girl was gone. Instead he went to the bed, lay down beside Jen and let the tears flow.

They left the hospital the next afternoon, Jen pale but well enough to go home. As the doors slid open Bradley saw another figure beside them, a little girl wobbling along with a toddler’s rambling gait, unseen and ignored by the staff and patients around them.

All except one old lady in a wheelchair who waved at the girl, then looked up at Bradley with a smile. He stopped, knelt down to speak with her.

‘Does the sorrow ever leave you?’ he asked.

‘No dear,’ the woman said, patting his hand. ‘But neither does the love.’




A miscarriage is a hideous thing to deal with. I’ve written about it in this story in part to deal with my own experience from a few years back, but not everybody can process it that way. So just in case anyone reading this is struggling to cope following a miscarriage, here’s a link to the The Miscarriage Association, who provide support in the UK. Far more people have to deal with this than you think. You are never alone.


NaNoWriMo update:

It feels almost unbearably casual to follow that one up with something unrelated, but life is what it is, even the parts that nearly break us. Yesterday took me to 10,264 words on my NaNoWriMo novel, keeping me on target. I may have to let it slide a little over the next few days as I catch up freelance writing – we’ll see.

Sometimes terrible people make great characters.

I was reminded of this as I was working on my NaNoWriMo story this morning. One of the two protagonists is rude, mean and inconsiderate towards others. But I’m really enjoying writing her, because she says the sort of things I’d love to say but never actually do.

Sure he’s cool, but would you work with him?

This is part of the appeal of any character with an unpleasant streak, whether protagonist or villain, from Archer to the Joker. They say and do things that we half want to say and do because they would help us to vent our feelings, but that we don’t say and do because of the impact on others and the consequences. It lets them be witty and insightful in an edgy way that other characters aren’t. It’s fun to read, to watch and to write.

As people we would never want these characters in our lives. Archer is hilarious to watch on TV but he’s undoubtedly a complete arsehole. The character I’m writing might be entertaining on paper, but her snide superiority would drive me nuts in reality. Fiction lets us have our cake and eat it, spending time with these people but not having to live and work with them, and that’s great.

Who are your favourite mean characters, and do you find that you get something out of spending time with them?

I’ve been reading some pretty cool stuff recently. I don’t seem to have time for full posts on any of it, but here’s a few things you might enjoy…

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Imagine if all those Star Trek extras who get killed on away missions realised how much danger they were in. Then imagine them trying to make sense of the weekly horror and terrible fatality rate that is their lives. That’s what this book is about.

Redshirts is odd stylistically. There’s almost no description, just a lot of dialogue and occasional action. That lack of description adds to the sense of anonymous people caught up in their terrible anonymous fate, as well as letting you imagine the trappings of your favourite scifi show as the backdrop to their lives. It’s the sort of meta-textual game that’s intriguing for a stand-alone novel but wouldn’t stand up to a series, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

If you’re a Star Trek fan or enjoy watching a writer play stylistic games then it’s well worth your time. If not you might find it a little frustrating. But if I have more than three readers who never watcher Trek then I’ll eat my hat. Or at least a hat shaped cake.


The Thief Trilogy by David Tallerman

I wrote a whole post about why I enjoyed the first book in this series, and it turns out that the rest live up to its promise. It’s a fantasy world without much of the wizz-bang magic stuff, in which the main fantasy elements are an invented country and some loveable giants. Thief and protagonist Easie Damasco continues to do the right thing against his own better judgement, and in the process follows a nice character arc from selfish prat to something at least vaguely akin to a hero.

This is a fast moving, action packed series with a certain wry humour to it and a nicely developed setting. The likeable supporting characters help to carry the reader through despite Easie’s initially despicable attitude to life, and the giants in particular are surprisingly loveable. Even Easie is hard not to like, with his sense of humour up there with his sense of self-preservation, and the clear hints from the start that he sort of wants to do the right thing, however much he protests against it. I’m going to miss these guys now the story’s done.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

If the art of the short story lies in succinctly portraying a single fascinating idea then Chiang has it nailed. Stories of Your Life and Others was something I only picked up as part of a reading group, and that I then fell far too far behind in reading to take part in the discussion, which is particularly vexing because these are fascinating ideas, from digging through the vault of heaven to trying to learn the language of a previously unknown alien species. The characters have emotional depth, the settings and events are interesting, but because it’s short stories I didn’t have the constant page-turning thrill of a longer work where you keep wanting to know what will happen next. Recommended for the cool concepts and self-contained emotional journeys, but if you’re anything like me you’ll read it over weeks of dipping in for one story, not in an over-excited binge.


NaNoWriMo update

Day one and I haven’t done my daily writing yet, but I’m sure I will. I just wish that I’d gotten round to planning chapter one in advance, or even coming up with decent names for the characters at the planning stage. I can’t write a half dozen scenes about Cardinal Cardinalface.

On Thursday I counted up all the fiction writing I’ll be doing in November. Between NaNoWriMo, a heavy freelance workload and my flash Friday stories, I need to write around 185,000 words of fiction to hit my goals this month. Plus about 15,000 words of non-fiction for this blog and another ongoing freelance gig. That’s a pretty staggering 200k in total. What’s even more staggering is that in theory it’s doable.

If I can do this then I can do anything I set my mind to, which I guess is the attitude NaNo is meant to foster. Have at you word count!

How are the rest of you getting on with NaNo? And having read my book recommendations, do you have any of your own that you’d like to share?

3261773180_27ccde179c_zYou can take the teacher out of the classroom but you can never entirely take the classroom out of the teacher. Hence the fact that Laura sometimes tells me off for using my ‘teacher voice’ with her, and that when I see people learning I want to build on it. So given several positive responses to my previous post on planning a novel, I thought I might spend a bit more time looking at how I use seven point story structure.

To share an example of how this worked for me, I’m going to talk about ‘A Flash of Power‘, a steampunk flash fiction story I published here a few weeks ago. So you can see how I planned it, and how that worked out in the end.

Think short

Unlike planning a novel, for a short story I seldom have more than one plot strand. That’s particularly true for flash fiction – seven story beats in less than a thousand words is quite enough. It also means that those beats aren’t such big shifts as in a full novel, and tend to be more immediately connected.

Step 1: a beginning and an end

Before planning the story I brainstormed a whole bunch of ideas then thinned them out using 100:10:1. I didn’t actually come up with a hundred ideas, but I did the fundamental part of brainstorming lots of ideas, developing a few and then picking one. For ‘A Flash of Power’ that was taking Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the steampunk heroes of a couple of stories in Riding the Mainspring, and giving them the challenge of stopping  a runaway moving factory.

That gave me an obvious end point for my story’s resolution:

  • They stop the machine.
    TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

The second part means there’s some some small slither of character development in what’s otherwise a slightly daft adventure story – mad inventor Blaze-Simms recognises the need for some small limit on what he does.

Seven point structure suggests starting at the opposite point from where you’re going to end, so that gave me my hook to introduce the story with:

  • On moving factory TBS built – lightning-powered, combined with lightning generator.
    DD questioning the logic of the factory, as it’s now out of control.

So the factory’s out of control, and Blaze-Simms is being challenged on the wisdom of his creation but hasn’t listened yet.

Now to work out how they get from hook to resolution.

Step 2: twists and turns

The mid-point is when the characters make a transition towards pro-actively tackling their situation, and that propels them from the hook to the resolution. In this story the characters are trying to stop the factory from the start – again, a flash length story didn’t leave me time for any pre-amble and I wanted to start in media res. So that transition needed to be them taking control, and that meant giving them a plan to stop the factory, making my mid-point:

  • TBS says they can earth the factory.
    DD accepts that as the plan.

Now I needed turn one, the event after the hook that would normally introduce the conflict and which sets them on the path of reactively trying to solve the problem. With the factory already out of control, the conflict came from showing why it was dangerous:

  • It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

Oh no, disaster! The great big factory is going to crush the little people! Quick, heroes to the rescue!

I also needed turn 2, the event between the midpoint and the resolution, where the heroes grasp victory from the jaws of defeat and find the final thing they need to succeed. Here it is:

  • TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

Great. They have a plan and the tools to carry it out, getting them to the end. But everything’s going a bit too smoothly. So…

Step 3: Making things awkward

If your protagonists have everything go their way then the story’s boring. Things need to go wrong. So between turn one and the midpoint came pinch one, piling on pressure for the characters. In this story I didn’t want to add an extra villain or major new complication, so the setback came from the failure of the characters’ own idea to solve the problem:

  • DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

They’ve pulled the plug but the factory keeps going, leading to the midpoint and coming up with a proper plan. But after that comes pinch two, in which even more pressure is applied and they look failure in the eye:

  • DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

Oh no! Our hero is hurtling, however briefly, towards his doom.

Step 4: Once more, this time in order

Put all of that together and you have the plan I used to write ‘A Flash of Power’:

On moving factory – lightning-powered, combined w lightning generator.
DD questioning the logic, as factory’s now out of control.

It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

TBS says they can earth it.
DD accepts that as the plan.

DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

They stop the machine.
TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

And you can compare that with the story I actually wrote here.

Let me know if you’re finding any of this useful. Sometime soon I’ll probably talk about what comes before all of this – some of how I approach developing the core idea of a story. And as I put some of it into practice over NaNoWriMo I’ll probably discuss other writing techniques I use, partly because of my inner teacher, but mostly because November looks crazy busy and I won’t have time for blog ideas that aren’t just spewing out what’s on my brain that day.

If you’re also doing NaNoWriMo then come buddy up with me on the site – I’m there as gibbondemon, just like my Twitter tag – and if you enjoy ‘A Flash of Power’ then you can read more adventures from Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms in Riding the Mainspringavailable for the Kindle through Amazon and on other formats via Smashwords.

Happy plotting!


Picture by Ben Tesch via Flickr Creative Commons.