Sunday, 28 August 2016

One page at a time...

A lesson in the obvious for you today…

I have set myself the task, or maybe it’s better said, I have promised myself, to work on my latest short story one page at a time. I know at first that may sound ridiculous but wait just a second.

If you are interested in writing you may have tried many different methods to approaching a story. If you have studied creative writing, or completed any course that requires written work, you may well have been tasked with writing in a style that does not comes naturally, or perhaps on the other hand you have never had the need to bother trying out different approaches and maintained the same method your whole life. If like me you love hearing or reading from writers in autobiographies or on YouTube telling you how they do it you may be surprised at the range of styles. You may laugh at how similar you are to someone or seriously frown at how much you contrast but the point is, I wonder how much you try a different technique to see if it works for you? There is the assumption that a natural writer will intuitively know how to produce great work and no matter where they find themselves or under what circumstances they’ll come up with the goods… and that maybe true for some. But it is also true that a lot of writers need quite specific surroundings and a quite specific set up in order to feel comfortable enough to concentrate. The room in which you write, the ambient noise, the times you write, and all that stuff is for another blog, I want to write about here the actual way you get the words down.

Remember please (repeated disclaimer No. 38872) that I am an amateur writer and this is a personal blog on my own experiences. I'm just an average bloke that is slowly crawling his way along, not in any way someone you should credit with any wisdom! In the past I have been so keen to get down ideas I have skipped back and forth between the major elements in a story, I have completed the end first, I have wrote a scene before it has any relevance to the story and all manner of different, messy, upside down and back to front ways. What I haven’t done up to now is be very strict with myself and write one page at a time. What I mean by that is not to draft another scene before I have finished the one I’m on, in the order in which the reader will read the book. If I get fed up with a page, or I’m stuck on what happens next, or I’m bored of the dialogue, etc. then I do not move on and start working on something else... as tempting as that is to do. I have persevered with this for the last few months and doggedly stuck to the bit I am on. If I am without Internet access and can’t reference something or I’m out and can’t access my thesaurus or dictionary I don’t skip it and go back to it later, I use the term I feel will do for now and continue. If I don’t particularly like the way it’s going (and pretty much know I’ll be rewriting it later) I still keep going.

Again, I know that sounds obvious. However I have found it works really well. It seems like I am taking longer and the length of a single page appears to have doubled, but I am enjoying seeing a single piece of work develop in front of me rather than having multiple sections all coming together like a jigsaw puzzle. It helps me feel more in control of the work and somehow more attentive to the way the storyline is developing. Now, this is just a trial. It’s good to have an arsenal of weapons and maybe this is a caliber of gun I use sparingly, or it may become the style upon which I rely, I don’t know yet, I will see how this story comes out. But in terms of the working process, I feel confident and optimistic it is helping me improve my writing as well as defining a clear working process. So as silly as it seems to say out loud and as face-slappingly boring it may be to hear, try writing one page at a time and never allow yourself to skip a single sentence without feeling it is complete. I have spent longer on a single page than I ever have before and sometimes given up on a writing session before making any progress whatsoever but coming back to that same point has stressed me to the point of compulsion and I have eventually found a way to break through (which is why I say it has helped improve me as a writer because I don't allow myself to pass over 'dodgy bits', I work at them until they are less 'dodgy' and just 'questionable' which is progress at my level). Of course, there will be multiple redrafts as always (sorry to all the single shot genii out there) but that has also been a revelation to me. Instead of having the entire story to redraft (which I do like but often I know there are weak or missing sections within certain chapters which will take significant time to work on) I am editing and redrafting a chapter at a time that is in a much better condition and doesn't make me feel like I am starting from scratch, this is because every time I start a new writing session I re-read up to the point I am stuck on (which believe it or not I don't always do, normally I just crack on immediately and worry about making sure the voice or narrative style, etc maintains continuity later on through editing and re-writing). That I think is one of the biggest benefits as it has helped me to tighten the structure as I go along and identify where things are working or not and incorporate what I need in the following chapter. Before, it has taken me a long time to work through a draft (the amount of red lines and annotations almost story length in themselves) and this way it feels so much more ready. It will still take work of course, I'm not saying by the time I finish the last sentence the story is ready, but because each scene has already undergone several read-throughs and edits it's not so scary a prospect to go through the whole thing. Saying that, the redrafting process (or is just the drafting process) is something I'll blog about separately. 

Right, next week: How to walk without falling over.

Have a great Sunday,

R.G Rankine

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Olympic Games, Netflix and Binge-Watching...

Discipline. It takes years of discipline, hard work and determination along with the strongest sense of desire and want… it takes mental fierceness and an unbreakable resolution to pick yourself up after disappointments and failures, to try and try and try again… but finally, after many years of training, I can now say that I’m capable of sitting on my backside for 48 hours in a row and binge-watch television at an Olympian level. There were times when I thought I’d never get there, when boredom, phone calls, pins’n’needles, weak bladder control and other interruptions meant I’d have to break away before an episode of Game of Thrones had finished. There were times when I couldn’t wait in-between episodes before having to fetch another pot noodle. I even briefly considered not immediately watching the next episode of Stranger Things while the credits were still rolling. We’re not all perfect.

On reflection, I think I’m superior to those who need support from friends and family, words of encouragement, early morning wake up calls, shoulders to cry on and all the rest of it. I got to where I am by myself, I didn’t need anyone’s help to change the batteries on my remote control or re-fill the nachos in my cooking pot sized snack bowl. I was the one who took it upon myself to MacGyver-out and fuse my chair and desk in such a way I could rest my laptop at the perfect viewing angle when lying on my sofa. I’m my own trainer, coach and mentor.

At times like these, when the guilt at watching people who actually work hard turns me into this gabbling idiot, I’m reminded of the Stephen King quote that I’ll paraphrase (how dare I change the King’s words) as: Amateurs think about writing, professionals get up and go to work.

As I watch yet another re-run of a sporting achievement I saw live anyway that quote is beating me around the head. The most important thing in my life is writing. I have no children or responsibilities that come above everything else, and not one single excuse that will hold weight with anyone who struggles to find five minutes to themselves in this intensely manic world. I know that I am capable of writing more and yet I fail. The last two weekends makes over a month’s worth of weekends in a row where I have somehow found myself doing nothing and I’m having palpitations thinking that if I don’t do something about my work rate, decades are going to flash by without me achieving anything.

The thing is I’m not a lazy person, it’s purely avoidance. I like keeping busy and I like working hard but there is something very easy and simple about telling yourself tomorrow tomorrow when working on your own writing. At a normal job you don’t say to your boss and colleagues ‘I’m not coming in today because I really fancy watching the canoe slalom heats… ’ or ‘I’m having the week off as I need to re-watch GoT series 1-5 to refresh myself before binge watching series 6.’ You wouldn’t dream of it and you certainly wouldn’t dreamt of getting permission! When I think back to the early mornings and late nights I have worked under pressure from deadlines and targets over the years it’s hard to reconcile that with the person who will lay down to listen to a few minutes of an album to clear the head knowing full well that means a two hour nap.

When there have been public transport strikes I have woken hours earlier than normal and walked into work. I have worked weekends and not taken holiday. I have dedicated myself to organisations and given everything I possibly could have to them yet when it comes to that same drive and near submissive sense of duty to my own work I miserably falter.

I’m not saying that I’m not allowed fun. Of course you need time to chill out and relax. There isn’t anything really wrong with binge watching television or watching table tennis or water polo for hours when you have no idea what is going on. (You should also never compare yourself to an Olympian under any circumstances.) There is nothing wrong with enjoying a series so much you can’t wait to put on the next episode. But for me, it is wrong if that overrides what I should be doing. Work is work and time off is time off and never should they mix. And it is far too easy these days to employ silly excuses like, ‘Well, it’s only every four years!’ As if the universe is somehow going to grant you time in lieu and give you extra days at the end of your life for all the wasted hours. Also, there is always something going on! You could fill every day with somethings. I mean, the European football championship is only every four years, the football world cup is only every four years, the general election is only every four years, the winter Olympics is only every four years… then add in the yearly events like the FA cup, Wimbledon, Grand National, Tour de France, bloody birthdays and Christmas! Then what about the one off’s? UFC championship fights, boxing world championships, the odd F1 race, weddings and funerals! If you really wanted to you could fill every single day with a something.

I guess this blog post is along the lines of a Facebook rant but aimed at myself rather than anyone else or the infuriating general population we are surrounded by. Why is it the simplest things we fail at most often? Why do I find it so easy to not sit at my desk, which is basically the easiest job in the world? Someone wants to pay me minimum wage to get up at 5am and work until I am emotionally and physically drained at 9pm and repeat five days a week… sure! Bring it on! But the offer of not moving further than a few metres from my bed with an endless supply of coffee and 90s indie alternative rock blasting out on the digital radio? No, thanks. No, sir. You have me mistaken with someone who wants a fulfilling and satisfying life.

So another week has passed. I have had my only every four years fill of long jump, synchronized swimming, individual dressage and Greco-Roman wrestling… I have had my fill of twiglet and dry roasted peanut fuelled telly binges and I have produced exactly zero words towards my latest short story, which in turn means that’s another week added to the time before I get back to my first novel, another week after that until I get back to the other short stories I have planned, another week added to the time after that when I start working on the other two novels I have planned… and on it bloody well goes! Add a couple of weeks more between each one and I reckon I’ll 172 years old before I start on the memoirs.

Just concentrate and work hard, sacrifice everything that isn’t important to you and do as Stephen King says, don’t think about it, just get up and go to work.

Have a great week.

R.G Rankine