Thursday, 29 June 2017

Sort of a book review: Writing From Start to Finish by Kate Grenville

I've started reading Writing From Start To Finish by Kate Grenville, and it's the first 'how to write' book that's ever even remotely clicked with me so now I'm going to bore everyone who reads this thread by talking about it.

The book follows the entire writing process from initially deciding to write something all the way to giving it the final polish. It focuses on short stories and essays, but also explains how the same process can be applied to any kind of writing. Unusually for a writing book, it doesn't start with planning. Or at least, not the plotting/outlining type of planning. Instead, the fiction-writing section starts with the idea of giving yourself an assignment. For example, "Write a novel about a necromancer, using the theme 'serenade of self-destruction'" would be a description of the 'assignment' for my current main writing project. Then you use the directions and constraints of the assignment as the first steps into generating piles of ideas and information - just sort of wild brainstorming at this stage using various combinations of mind-maps, lists, research, and freewriting. Then once you've generated enough ideas, you sort them into piles depending on how useful they are or how well they fit into the assignment.

Then you start constructing the outline, long after I would have expected to be told to do it.

The thing is, looking at a lot of my 'chaos drafts' I can sort of see that they're right back at that early step of generating ideas and information. The next step isn't for it to magically come together as a complete novel draft - it's sorting all the bits and pieces into what really fits the original 'assignment' and what doesn't. Even then, the outlining stage is constructed on the basis that you'll be adding and changing ideas the whole way through it, and the drafting stage is practically inviting me to write in whatever order I want. Overall, the book is the closest thing I've found to a reference for the writing style I've found myself adopting.

Overall, this book is easy to read and the process it describes is easy to follow, but also easy to adapt if you're someone like me who already has a few established quirks. It's going to be extremely helpful for the coming Camp NaNo month. I only wish I'd bought it a bit earlier so I had more time to get myself sorted out.

I bought it from Booktopia, but I assume it's available from all the usual retailers.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Of Dark Backgrounds and Blue-Light Filters, a rant

Me: *adds "Don't recommend f.lux" to a post requesting dark themes*
Everyone: *recommends a whole bunch of things that are basically f.lux*
Me: *goes on a Twitter rant*

Rather than just embedding the tweets, I'm going to try to expand them a bit. So, I guess here's the second draft of my rant.

The first thing I have to say is this: If your software has light-background areas that can't be changed, it's not suitable for people who need dark backgrounds. This usually means toolbar and menu backgrounds, but there are some applications where the main text area can't be changed. If someone has changed to a dark-background theme, they did it for a reason and it's highly unlikely that the reason will just evaporate because you (the developer) told them your application needed to be used in light background/dark text.

There's also a sub-type of the background colour issue where the program will accept the dark background of an OS (operating system) dark or high contrast theme, but only at the cost of reduced functionality. Some elements might disappear or not display correctly, and in a lot of cases there are entire features that disappear. As an example of this, try setting a high contrast theme in Windows and then opening a spreadsheet that has cell background colours. Guess what you're going to see. I'll give you a clue: what colour did your high contrast theme set as 'background'? I mean, seriously. If changing to a dark/high contrast theme removes functionality, it's also not good enough.

These are serious issues for people with certain eye conditions. I'm photophobic and migrainey (I know there's probably a word for that...), and looking at light-background computer screen content is immediately painful and then migraine-triggering. I cope online by using a selection of Firefox add-ons to force dark backgrounds, and I choose my desktop applications for their ability to conform to my desired colour scheme.

Telling me to change to an orange/red background via a blue-light filter isn't going to cut it. I've tried them. Regardless, whenever I (or anyone else I've seen who posts about photophobia/migraines) asks for solutions, it's the same answer. "Just get... [blue-light filter that worked for me]". Well, no. Bright red or yellow light is very nearly as bad for me. When I say 'dark' I mean black or dark grey. (Actually, my very favourite background colour is #060A08, with text of #78B97E. You wanted to know that, right? PS: if you're on my blog, you're probably looking at those colours right now.)

Now, this isn't a universal problem, or one of scale. Although many big-name projects have major problems with backgrounds (including a couple of popular fiction-writing programs and just about every kind of spreadsheet program), the other end of the scale can actually be better. There are projects with only one or two developers who do a great job of either having really simple theming or letting the OS decide the appearance of the window. Some of my favourite programs that handle this nicely are FocusWriter and CherryTree — both, as far as I know, single-developer projects. My most-used program, Zim Desktop Wiki, has a couple of issues on Windows, but at least I can choose whatever theme I like from the GTK2 archive.
For your visual pleasure, my beautiful Zim Desktop Wiki, with GTK2 theme. It's called 'Darkmint' by the way.
So, the open source community can manage to write software I can use. From what I've seen browsing the code, it may actually be EASIER. Many (most?) programming languages have features to allow the OS to style the window. To get around them, you have to hard-code stuff. That means building the colours and images right into the program itself, which is both tedious and annoying, to say nothing of how hard it is to change anything later on. If you have any web-development experience, that's like using tables and inline styling when you could have had divs and a separate CSS file.

Yep, I make the best comparisons.

Anyway, what the programming bit means is that if you're in charge of one of those unfriendly-to-photophobes software projects, you're doing it wrong. If you'd used the built-in features for making programs conform to the OS theme, you could have saved work, made your code easier to maintain AND made it easier for people like me to use your software. From where I'm sitting,that seems like it should be a good idea, not a bad one.

Okay, now that I've turned a few Tweets into an 800+ word blog post, that's definitely enough of a rant. If the software companies are right, nobody cares much about this and I'm wasting my time writing about it, but... I mean, you have to start somewhere, right?

Here's the bottom line:

Software companies, do your own damn work! Don't just try to out-source it to blue-light filters. Dark backgrounds are needed, so please start allowing for them. As I said earlier, it might even make your job easier.

Monday, 19 June 2017

July on Steve the WriMo Forum: juice boxes, jubes, and joy!

Greetings Stevians past and present!

First of all, this is an invitation to those of you who haven't visited Steve the WriMo Forum in a while. We're still here and we'd love to have you back! I'm trying to get hold of everyone I possibly can, so as well as posting here I've sent out a mass email and will be linking to this post on Twitter.

Next, plans for the coming month of July, which is a Camp NaNoWriMo month. For this month I'm revisiting my April theme: unless you have a compelling reason to avoid it, I think everyone on Steve should sign up for Camp NaNo.

Reasons why:

1. Compelling reasons aside, it's basically something you'd be doing anyway, only with a slightly stronger feel of 'challenge' to it and an extra incentive to make it a more or less daily thing.

2. You can set just about any goal you like - words, hours, minutes, lines, pages.

3. The lowest goal number you can choose is 30, so if that applies to all of those things, you could be signing up for a goal as low as one word per day for the month. (Note: I don't actually know if this is true. There's probably different minimum goals for the different goal types.)

4. It gives us a unifying theme for Steve - regardless of what goals and projects, we'd all have the same goal of not slipping behind in our Camp goal.

Because we already have an entire forum for chatting through the month, there isn't going to be an official Steve cabin, although anyone can feel free to start an unofficial one. There will be various small writing challenges throughout the month, on a secret schedule known only to myself.

(Okay, I don't have a schedule. I may try to make one up before then, though, because it's much easier to think of challenges when you're not neck-deep in a NaNo month.)

As usual, there will be thread on Steve for suggestions, discussion and general preparation for July. In particular, suggestions for challenges to put on that schedule would be fantastic. Also, any June planning/preparation challenges that could help us get ready for July. While we all have different techniques and approaches, sometimes something that works well for one writer could provide the missing piece of the puzzle another writer needs.

The planning thread is here: July: juice boxes, jubes, and joy! (you'll need to log in to access it, though)

So, are we ready for July?

Siana, (Steve co-admin)

PS: If you've forgotten your Steve password or username, check your email! Virtually this exact message was sent around as a mass email today, and the email will show you your username. You'll be able to use that email account and username to reset your password and log back into Steve.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Story elements I need to figure out in advance: "Why this character?"

Quick note on my blogging schedule: for June, I think it's going to be this: at least 3 posts per week, no set topics. In July I'll increase it to at least 5 per week, mostly with the theme 'Camp NaNoWriMo day x: title'. I'll think about August and beyond if I manage to keep the blog alive for June/July. At the moment I'm mostly thinking about blogging as an extension of journalling - similar to how I use my PPT on Steve the WriMo Forum.

Now, on with today's topic: the things I need to figure out in advance.

In my notes for one of my current classes (Writing the Short Story), there's this question: do you think some story elements look after themselves as long as you concentrate on others, and which do you think are the important ones to focus on?
Being me, I automatically answered that the important elements are 'character' and 'setting'. Everything else - plot, structure, voice, viewpoint, style and so on, I tend to assume will grow out of solid characterisation and setting-building. However, while this is a nice idea and makes me feel all writerly and creative, there's a big problem.
I don't actually do these things.

Right now I have this tangled mess of characters, settings and plots that I believe can be divided into (I think) five entirely separate stories. So, if I believe the two most vital building blocks are the characters and their worlds, you'd think the way I'd try to untangle it would be to make solid versions of the characters and settings and then work outwards from there. Am I doing this? No. I'm just sitting here flailing, and the stories are still tangled and largely unwritten.

A more honest answer to that question would be that I believe some elements look after themselves as long as I oncentrate on others... but that I don't actually know which elements fall into which category. For example, in my last (entirely pantsed) story, I tried to end the world with space-sunflowers. I came up with that basic premise, and then just sort of sketched the rest of it in. The story almost worked and I got a pretty good mark for it, but there was something missing. Specifically, there was a giant hole in my characterisation and I think this points me towards one of the elements I really need to have in advance. The element is this: "Why this character?"

As soon as I read the comments, I knew it wasn't just a problem with that particular story. I could come up with a list of other things I've written where that question casts a dark cloud of uncertainty over the whole thing. So often, when I'm embarking on an editing/rewriting project, the only answer I can come up with is "Because the writer said so" as an answer, and I always know it's not good enough but can't come up with anything better. I conclude that the character I've created and the plot I shoved them into are so hopelessly incompatible that there's no way to fix it. The number of drafts in that category right now is slightly bigger than I'd like to admit. This is a problem I really need to learn how to fix.

While I was trying to answer the study question, I came up with an idea for a writing exercise that I think would help. Basically, I find a question I don't know the answer to ("Why this character?") and come up with a brief answer.

"Why this character?"

"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Why was she in the wrong place?"

"Because her handbag strap broke and she had to sit down for a moment to figure out an emergency fix."

...and so on. That example has nothing to do with anything, but it sort of illustrates the point. I ask myself a question, answer it, and then construct a new question out of a problem in the answer. I don't know if it's really going to help, but maybe if I can dig deep enough into those questions I'll at least be able to come up with a concrete answer to the original "Why?" question.

So, readers, have you ever tried anything like this before? Liked it? Hated it? Disappeared into an endless void of circling around the same questions, then given up and used the story as cat litter?

Although, I guess most of us do these things on the computer, so maybe 'hard drive clutter' is more likely than 'cat litter'. You have to go to special effort to turn it into something for your cat, while consigning it to the folder of abandoned WIPs is just a quick click-and-drag. That might be a fun idea for an app - something that produces a short animation of some kind of destruction (cat peeing, setting it on fire, shredding) and then moves the file to an archive folder.

Charging up her virtual flamethrower,

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Return of the 'Year of Writing a Damn Lot'?

So, I've been doing some thinking (about 6 pages worth of typewriter-hitting) and I've come up with a bit of a plan.

First of all, I've concluded that I'm stuck in my current project because the Necroverse is always a giant tangle. I still don't know what I want to do about that in particular, but as a general sort of thing I've decided it's time to pursue another 'Siana Blackwood's Year of Writing a Damn Lot' (this was my theme for 2011) and try to really make an impact on the Scary List of Scary. So, I've developed a sort of idea for how to work on chaos drafts (aka incomplete non-linear pantsing). The plan goes like this:

0. (For all projects, not just chaos drafts) Have a brief look at the current state of the project and construct a task list to get it to the end of the next major milestone (e.g. chaos draft → complete first draft, first draft → second draft). Some tasks will be generic, others specific to an individual project.

1. Write a general description of the story - who's in it, what their roles are, what stuff happens, where it happens and such. Basically, what I was talking about the other day as a 'starting package'.

2. Make a list of all the available 'random scenes' that fit (or could fit) into this story.

3. Rewrite the first scene so it properly fits the general description. This is probably several steps in one - find the scene, make notes on what I need to do, do the things. Might also involve expansions to the general description.

4. Repeat Step 3 for the next scene on the list from Step 2.

5. If the two scenes fit together sequentially, all is fine at this point. If not, then at this point I go back and work out a summary of what happens between the two scenes.

Then after that it's basically looping through steps 3, 4 and 5 until I get all the way to the end of the available material.

So, this is going to be the new... I don't know, Financial Year of Writing a Damn Lot? That sounds weird, but it's halfway through June and the financial year ticks over at the end of the month, so something like that might even make sense.

(PS: This could possibly become a new Steve the WriMo Forum challenge, if anyone is interested. )

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Blog Necromancy III: A Little Light Abandonment (or, Why I'm Reviving my Blog)

I'm feeling very lonely and isolated at the moment. The reason for this is probably simple and obvious: it's past midnight and I'm sitting alone in my room with a computer and some heavy metal for company. The heavy metal is The Malkuth Grimoire by Alkaloid, by the way. Since getting my current computer at the end of last year, this is my most frequently played album. Loud, musically complex heavy metal is a great way to distract myself from the ultimate futility of existence.

The thing about 'lonely and isolated' as a concept is that there are things I want to say, and mere alleviation of the physical state of loneliness isn't going to cut it. I've spent most of today with my family, working on some improvements to the kitchen. This involved demolishing an entire room, which was pretty cool. At any rate, I've talked to people, spent time interacting with them and so on. Now, though, sitting alone at the computer, I realise that there are things I want to say in a more specific context. I want to talk about writing.

Anyone who knows me from writing-related sites (Arrow of Eloquence, NaNoPlotMo, Steve the WriMo Forum, or in the unlikely event that I've managed to establish my existence on the Absolute Write forum), is likely to have an impression of me as... I don't really know how to describe it, but what I sort of mean is that even in the company of other writers I feel like I'm going off somewhere strange. As a student now, studying literature and creative writing, I'm finding the same thing happening there. We get weekly discussion questions, and I write my answer and post it, then find that everyone else in the thread is coming from a completely different direction. I think this is adding to my sense of isolation, knowing that the deeper I dig the less accepted I feel.

Because of this, I end up keeping things to myself. Why bother writing down a thought when I have nowhere to share it? Then, because I do my best thinking when I'm writing things down as I go, I end up not exercising those philosophical and introspective parts of my mind. Without those moments, I start to lose other things as well, which I think is what's happening to me right now. The lack of people to share weird thinking with means I'm not doing any weird thinking, and that seems to mean I can't do any weird writing.

So, I'm choosing what's probably the least effective method imaginable for trying to get back into the right mindset for creativity: I'm reviving my blog.