Archive for November 2008

NaNo Winning post

November 28, 2008
NaNo08 Winner

Made it to the finishing post today…  The 50k target reached, but the story far from complete.  I still have at least another two chapters and an epilogue to write…

Back to work.

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NaNo Update

November 20, 2008
NaNoWriMo Participant

My wordcount is now over 34k (probably around 37k according to the official count) and I’ve just passed what I think is probably my biggest plot hurdle.  Writing a funeral as seen through the eyes of somebody who has lost his true love turned out to be a quickly-flowing, but quite harrowing process.  The whole thing just about wrote itself, but I found myself coming across some unexpected emotions in there that were even more powerful than the sense of loss.

The difficulty I knew would come in following on from the funeral, just as it is difficult to adjust to life after your world has been turned upside-down, how do you write about the slow process of the main character coming to terms with the new status quo without boring the reader?  I’ve now had him take those first faltering, and in his case, alcohol-filled, steps which let the second act of the novel begin.

The next chapter has to deal with a span of three years before the story picks up, so I’m expecting it to be another tricky one to write, with the lead role effectively spending years in an alcoholic haze before the catalyst strikes to set him back on the road to redemption.

Tools for Timelines

November 20, 2008
Overview of a timeline

Overview of a timeline

I’m using a Linux PC to write on, which has fewer options for dedicated writing tools than Windows or OSX, but there are still a plethora of free applications out there which are very useful.  I’ve yet to find my best way of working with them, but I thought I would share some of them for anybody else who might be starting out with writing under Linux.

The first of these is available for Linux, Windows and OSX and is OpenOffice.  What I’m going to look at is not the word processor part, which is a fully-functional alternative to much more expensive applications, but the spreadsheet application.  I use the spreadsheet program, known as OpenOffice.org Calc, for putting together timelines for major events and key characters in the story.  Click on the below for a more detailed view, but in essence what I do is:

Create columns for Chapter, Day/Date, then one for each main character and possibly for other events which need to fit into the flow, such as historic background events.  I then change the background colours of each character heading to give them a unique colour.

In the left column, under the chapter heading I enter the chapter number and a very brief summary of the key things that I need to happen in that chapter, one line for each thing.  It is easy to add more later by selecting the whole row and inserting additional blank rows.  I then put a solid line under the chapter and move down to fill in the next chapter’s key events.

In the next colum (column B) I’ll put the date, the day or some measure of the passage of time where it is important.  This can be real timesaver if you need to refer back to dates at any time in the future of the story – crime/detective/mystery stories will definitely benefit from this, and it will stop your readers getting confused.  Note that you don’t necessarily need to explicitly mention the time passing in the story, just be aware of it as you write so that you don’t end up contradicting something mentioned earlier in the book.

Under each character you have a cell for each activity they are involved in.  It doesn’t have to be too detailed, but there will be times that you need certain things to happen in the correct order, such as in chase sequences or as a mystery starts to unfold, where you need one character to have done something before another does something else.  It is at this point of completing the timeline that you’ll have to regularly add rows as you realise that the plot for each character will have a place in time in comparison with the others.  When characters have to interact in some way; passing an object from one to another or one doing something that directly and instantly affects the other, then the two events should go on the same row.  To emphasise and keep track of these important events, I colour the background of the cell with the heading colour of the character they are interacting with (see the image below for examples).  This makes it easy to see where groups of characters need to meet across the duration of the story, helping you to realise that you might have to get one of them to the other side of the country for the event to take place.

In other columns to the right of the main characters I place events that define the background to the story, which could be historic events or train arrival times; in my current book it shows the timings of a series of murders in relation to the flow of events.  You could also use these columns for non-character items, such as a knife or a ring or a love letter which you need to keep track of by using the character heading colours to show who holds the item as the events unfold.

Detailed view of the timeline

Detailed view of the timeline

If you’d like more information about writing using Linux, I’ll be doing some more of these over the next few weeks, but I would also recommend you take a look at The Writer’s Technology Companion where there is a useful ongoing series about using Linux for writing.

NaNoWriMo08 Ch6 Excerpt

November 19, 2008
NaNoWriMo Participant

I was very happy with progress tonight, having hit the 27,000 word mark, passing halfway both in terms of words written and the plot of the novel.  The tragedy has struck and the main character has a few heavy-going chapters ahead of him.  Poor sod.

I went to the NaNo site to update my word count from the running count I have and noticed an addition – they are now validating word counts.  I thought I would give it a try since different programs use different routines to calculate numbers of words in a document, so I wanted to know what sort of safety margin I might have to build in.  I don’t want to get to November the 30th thinking I’ve done 51k words only to find out that only 48k of them registered.

So I copied and pasted my entire work-in-process, now called “Benefits of Hindsight“, into their word counter and was amazed to see it return the figure of 30,475 – 3k more than I thought I had written.  That puts me ahead of my own targets, so I’m pretty happy with that, though I’m sticking with my own measure to be on the safe side for the moment.

Here’s some of chapter 6, where the lead character (currently called Charlie, but likely to change) meets up with a friend of his missing wife hoping to use her contacts to investigate the strange occurrences in his life:-

I made the trip down to Ciara’s shop, her Aladdin’s cave of the new age, early the next morning.  I wanted to catch her before she opened up so that we could have a decent chat without worring about disturbing her business, which could be pretty busy during the summer months and especially towards the summer solstice when people would travel from around the country heading to the ferry at Uig to travel to Lewis and visit the stones at Callanish.  As I arrived, around eight-thirty in the morning, she was just unlocking the door to the shop.
“Charlie!  How are you?” she jumped towards me and gave me a mighty hug.  It felt good; I hadn’t had a hug since I last saw Mary and I relished the human contact and supporting warmth it conveyed to me.
“Trying to keep busy, working out what’s been happening, really” I answered her.
“No news, I take it then?  Of QC?”  QC had been Ciara’s nickname for Mary since they first became friends.  It came from people’s surprise at how different the two of them were, and stood for ‘Quite Contrary’.
“Nothing.  She seems to have vanished without a trace.  I’ve all but given up on pestering the police for information.  The last thing they could tell me was that none of the CCTV cameras between the airport and the train station she was supposed to be travelling to have any footage of her.  There was one image of her passing through the arrivals section and that was the last anybody has seen of her.”
“Weird” she said.
“When you tell me something is weird, it must be truly bizarre.”
She invited me in for some herbal tea whilst she set up her till and prepared for her day’s trading, during which we talked about some of the unsettling coincidences that I had come across over the weeks since the murders in London had been taking place.  She was growing agitated the more we spoke about the chain of events, until she seemed to be able to hold herself back no more.
“Charlie, you’ve got to see Trenazia.  I insist.  The universe is obviously trying to tell you something.  You can only get so far with internet research and messing around with some of the crackpots on there.  You’re needing to see the big guns.  Trenazia is the real deal.  She lives in London, I’ll give you her address and directions.  She can guide you through this.  I have no doubt.  It might be the only way to find out what’s happened to Mary.  To save her, even, if it’s not too late.”
She hurried into the back of the shop and rifled through a pile of folders, eventually pulling one out and flicking quickly through the pages.  She copied some details from one of the pages on a piece of scrap paper and handed it to me.  “Here’s her address and a contact number.  You need to arrange to see her as soon as possible.  Promise me!”
“Of course, Ciara, anything that will bring Mary back to me.”
“Good, let me call her now and make the introduction.”
She reached behind her for the phone and tapped in the number, then waited for an answer.
“It’s Ciara” she spoke into the phone.  “I have a friend here who needs your help.  He’s found himself with threads to the killings in London and his wife has disappeared.  Yes, I know. Okay, here he is…” she handed me the phone.
“Hello?” I asked.
“There is a dark concentration of energy around these killings” she said.  “They are beyond the normal.  If your wife is linked to these it is very serious.  Not just for her.  Others will suffer.  You will need to come to me.  Ciara will give you details”  and with that she hung up.
“So far, so cryptic” I said to Ciara.

NaNo Update

November 17, 2008

participant-120x90-paper.pngThis whole experience is a bit of a blast.  I’m coming up on the 20k mark, still short of my own target of around 24k for today.  Had I started at the beginning of November I should have already hit the halfway mark, 25k, over the weekend.  My overall target is lower than this, but having started later, my daily target is higher than the one I would have set with an earlier start.  I have had a few days where I’ve written over 3000 words, as well as a few where I’ve only had time to slip in another couple of hundred.  Two days in the last week were completely ruled out by being away with work and having guests round, so I’m playing catch-up from them.

In terms of plot I have come to the turning point for the main character, with him almost reached the low point he’ll have to drag himself out of over the rest of the book, and discovered a wonderful new character who wasn’t in the original plan and sneaked in as a device to look after the main character’s dog whilst we was away from home.  This new character has practically written himself, guided by the muse, and he’s going to be back at some point because I think he’s got a great story to tell at some stage.

I think the main thing I have realised so far is that once I have sat myself down with yesterday’s work on the left of my screen and my timeline on the right, I can quickly get into the flow of writing large quantities of narrative, particularly dialogue.  However I’m also finding that it is easier to do so on workdays rather than weekends.  It probably had something to do with the structure weekdays have in comparison to weekends, but it has been easier for me to sit down at the end of the day (or even for half and hour at lunchtime) and write without distraction.  I just need to do a bit more of it!

NaNoWriMo08 Ch3 Excerpt

November 11, 2008
NaNoWriMo mug Logo

I have almost caught up with my target wordcount after a couple of days of writing without having to tweak timelines or character details.  Just following the flow between the timeline signposts is proving to be quite liberating, taking me to places I hadn’t quite expected.  Fun.  Had I been involved in NaNoWriMo since the start of the month and keeping on target I would have been hitting 20,000 words tomorrow, but as it stands I’m currently just under 10,000.  The target I’m following needs me to write 2,000 words per day instead of the 1,666 I would have to do had I started on time, which is a bit more challenging, but I’ve been writing over that for the last two days, so things are picking up.

Unfortunately I’m away with work all day tomorrow, starting early and finishing late, so there’s no chance of getting anything done then, which will set me back again.  I’ll just need to try and squeeze some extra in today to make up for it.

Here’s a chunk of chapter 3, which continues to grow.  I have one more scene to add to it before I can move onto the next chapter.  I’m not sure whether I will have to split it into two later on, but there is a lot that happens to the main character in this one which really sets him on a course that defines the rest of the story.

The weather had been wild over the past few days; high winds and continuous rain, not unusually heavy, but just constantly wet, and it had taken a toll on our garden.  We have a reasonable sized plot of land between the house and the cliff which leads down to the beach, about a quarter of an acre in total of which a third is overgrown grass and the rest in a work-in-progress.  Which essentially means it’s a building site with occasionally scattered pots of shrubs and troughs full of either flowers or herbs.  Following the rain a large pile of topsoil had almost completely migrated from this section down to the middle of the grass, so we spend most of Monday evening, once the rain had finally died off, shovelling the errant earth back to where it belonged before the grass took it as a message to grow higher and we’d need to buy in another load of topsoil.
The phone rang inside the kitchen and I reached through the open window to pick it up.
“Hello” I said, expecting it to be one of the neighbours who had experienced a similar mini landslide over the weekend.
“Huh…” a male voice on the other end grunted at me.
“Hello?” I queried.
Silence.
“Hello?  Who’s there?” I remembered the previous mystery calls and began to get annoyed.
“Um… Heh…”
“Who is this?  What are you calling here for?”
“I, eh, where is she?”  came the question eventually.  Whoever this was sounded drunk and it wasn’t a voice I recognised.
“She who?  Who are you looking for?  Who is this calling?”  I was damn sure I wasn’t going to let him freak her out again without at least knowing who he was.
“It’s me, eh… erm…  shit… eh…”
“Are you taking the piss?” I asked, starting to get angry with whoever this was, but trying to hold back my temper to get him to say who he was.
“No… no… I’m just… I need to talk to Mary.  Eh… Can you put her on the phone?”  Okay, now at least I knew he was definitely wanting to talk to Mary and wasn’t just some drunk calling a wrong number.
“She’s not here at the moment,” I lied, trying to force him to give me a name, “but I can give her a message.  Do you have a number she can contact you on?  What’s your name?”
“A jus’ wanna talk to ‘er!” he was starting to shout and slur his words more.
“She isn’t here.  And she won’t talk to you if she doesn’t even know your name.”
“I…” he let out what sounded like a sob, then sighed and hung up.
“Arsehole” I muttered to myself, turning to Mary who had by now walked over to listen to my side of the conversation.  “Some drunk wanting to talk to you.”
“Drunk?  Who was it?” she asked
“No idea, hon.  I didn’t recognise his voice at all; sort of gravelly with a Scottish accent.  Kind of difficult to tell between the slurring.  He just wanted to talk to you.  That’s all he’d say.  Bloody nutter.”
“You’d better let me get it next time.  It might be important.”
“Ex-boyfriend, maybe?” I joked.  I regularly tease her that one of these days she’ll come to her senses and cast me aside to jet off to a celebrity lifestyle, leaving me to become a pitiful, lonely and bitter alcholic.  Unfortunately we already knew a couple of people who experienced that very scenario, and knew just how harrowing it can be.  She smiled.
“Ha ha.  I don’t know.  Half of the folk round here have English accents anyway and almost everyone I know from before moving here were all from London, so
I really have no idea.  Just let me talk to the nutter next time, eh?”

NaNoWriMo08 Ch2 Excerpt

November 10, 2008
NaNoWriMo Participant

I’m still falling behind target, made worse by being out on Saturday night and doing very little, but made up some ground last night, well into chapter 3 which has turned out to be twice as long as the first two.  I’ve been having difficulty moving the story on at a couple of points because of the structure of the plot which requires some pointers to be dropped in early on which become of more significance later on, and I’m trying to make sure I have them in place so that I don’t run the risk of the plot becoming totally illogical.  Having the timeline finally settled is helping this, though it is still being tweaked occasionally to make sure I get everything lined up further on down the line.  I’m starting to get a better handle on two of the main characters, which is making writing their dialogue run a little more smoothly.

Here’s a little bit from chapter 2, where things are starting to deviate from the norm…

When I awoke with a start it was not upon touchdown, but at the first stop on the train.  I didn’t know where I was.  I certainly didn’t know how I had got there.  One moment I was on a plane, the next on a train.  Somehow I had managed to get off the plane, through the airport, down to the train terminal, buy a ticket and board the train without being able to recall a single second of it.  I would say that it was a similar feeling to travelling a familiar road and becoming aware that you’ve covered twice the distance expected, or getting caught up in a piece of music so much that you get to the end and realise you didn’t sing the chorus like you normally do.  Yet it was more than that.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t been paying attention.  I simply had no memory of doing any of those things over the previous hour and a half.  I felt myself shaking and wishing I had brought my hip-flask.
By the time the train drew into Liverpool Street, my nerves had returned to normal, but I helped them along with a double shot of espresso from one of the coffee booths in the station, before making my way out on my usual route.  As I passed the tramp and his dog he seemed to catch my passing glance and stare back, which just made me laugh, as it occurred to me that I was still sufficiently visibly shaken by my missing period of time that somebody in his state of disarray should do a double-take at the way I look.  He is usually too drunk to do much more that curse or mumble at anyone passing within his line of sight.