The 100 day book – 10 lessons from this amazing challenge

Reading Time: 8 minutes
100 day book program
This writing challenge was hard work but so worth it. I wrote a complete first draft, with the 100 Day Book program. And now I’m shattered. Levens beach, in Fife, Scotland, September 2017

At the end of August I completed the 100 Day Book program from The Write Practice. From the middle of May, I had committed to a daily word count, and a weekly share of my work, and giving weekly feedback on the progress of other writers in the program. I had slogged and sweated and ignored the housework and at the end of 100 days I had a complete first draft of a fantasy novel.

This challenge is definitely not for everybody. You need to be prepared to work. There’s teaching and support in the program, but that doesn’t write the book for you. You have to put in the hours, every week, and share the results in the private 100 Day Book forum, without skipping a week.

It’s been unbelievably hard work, especially since like most people I have a family and a job. I can’t just swan off to a log cabin and bury myself in my art, tempting as that sounds.

So how do you do it? What does this program involve, and what have I learned from doing it that I would pass on to other writers?

1.Firstly, 100 days is not 100 days. Sure, it’s 100 elapsed days. And you have a word count goal to achieve in that time.  So many words per day, simple, right? But take out your calendar. Here’s that wedding you will be at all weekend. Here’s the go-live on a massive work project. Here are early mornings and evenings where you will be travelling in areas without signal. And in July the kids break up from school for six weeks. How are you going to write then?

Your task is to strike out all the days when you already know you won’t be writing. Divide your word count goal by the remaining days, not 100.

I got to July this year, with nearly six weeks to go, thinking this was easy. Then I realised that from mid July til the end of the challenge, I would not be able to write at lunchtimes or on Fridays – my two main opportunities to write. That meant I had to double my daily word count in the days I could write. Suddenly the task got a lot harder.

Lesson – count up your genuine writing days in advance. Divide your total word count by that number, not 100, to get the number of words you must write on writing days.

2. A writing community is an amazing gift. In the last four weeks of the programs I had a ton of catching up to do, and was posting 7000-10000 words a week in the 100 day book forum. And my readers were reading them – in amongst posting their own massive chunks of novel. I would have been happy for people to skim my posts just to give me a bit of encouragement and pick out a page or two to give feedback on. But they didn’t, they read the lot, they found plot holes and demanded to know what would happen next. So that was awesome, and helped keep me going.

Lesson – writing within a community of supportive, committed artists is a joy, and it keeps you going on days when the words will not come.

3. The 100 day Book program creates an addictive writing urge. When you stop having to write every day you really, really miss it. For three weeks since the challenge ended, I have been totally lost. The story  was over. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Last week I began creating my scene list, ready to do the structural edit which this book really needs. But even then, halfway through that task, I felt bereft.

I am now back on my 750 word a day general writing target. For now it doesn’t matter what I write* so long as I get back into that habit. So that’s a great takeaway from the 100 day book. It creates a writing habit, to the extent that afterwards you can’t not write. That’s pure gold, right there. Thanks, Write Practice!

(*It does matter what I write. My Type-A personality insists that I am writing towards a sequel or prequel or some other useful piece of work. Jotting down random thoughts does not count.)

Lesson: Writing intensively like this creates a lifelong habit which will fuel your productivity forever.

4. You can’t cheat on a creative promise. Sometimes you simply do not have time to go into the detail that you would give without an excruciating deadline. So you can add notes – ‘brief chapter here where hero explores the city and we see examples of the governor’s cruelty’ as placeholders ready for the second draft. But you can’t just go, ‘oh, here’s a bit where the plot is all solved, tada, I’ve written a book’.

I included a couple of places where I knew the scene I needed to write but had just run out of time. My readers in the 100 Day Book forum didn’t like that. They wanted to see words on the page. That was my promise. So be warned – to-do-later notes are fine, but your outline is not your 100-day-novel.

Lesson – don’t cheat your readers or yourself. You’ve promised to write a book, not a synopsis. Think – adding a load of Do It Later notes just gives you more to do in second draft.

5. The first week is really hard. Not because of the writing. That’s easy. You are the most energised at the start if a big project, brimming with ideas, raring to write the scenes which gleam in your mind’s eye. No, the hard part of the first week of the 100 day book program is having to create your book plan.

That’s right people, they make you do a plan. A synopsis of the story, but also a chapter by chapter book outline, plus identifying the book’s audience and creating a plan for marketing. For once in my plotting life, I had to know the ending before I started writing.

So that first week was a tough one for a lifelong pantser like me. But in the year since I started this blog and began exploring writing techniques, I have come to accept that planning can be useful, even if like me you prefer to do it in your head rather than on a  spreadsheet.

I had to tarnslate my instincts into a formal book plan. I always do know the kind of ending I want (big weather, dramatic scenery, the hero shouting his previously undeclared love across a ravine as the monster rears up to snatch him and the heroine away…) and I know the thing that kicks off the book – but I struggle with getting from A to B. Being forced to write the middle, ugh, the middle, was really helpful.

Lesson – knuckle down and make an outline, even if you hate it. Follow the program’s guidelines for doing this is you’re totally new to it. It works.

6. The synopsis and outline will help with querying later. This is great. Every week on the Write Practice forums I see questions from writers going through the process of submitting their work for publication. And everyone agrees that summarising your art for a potential commercial buyer is the hardest part. If you already have a premise, synopsis and outline, then you have a head start. It’s easier to hone something than to create it from scratch. I’ll be honing like crazy over the next few months.

Lesson – creating a premise is a long term gain.

7. Don’t miss that weekly deadline. I didn’t miss any of my 14 weeks, but if I had, there would have been consequences. In the case of the 100 Day Book program, this was a monetary consequence. You heard me right. You give them an amount of money for joining the program. At the end when you succeed, they give you a chunk of it back. But not if you miss deadlines. Now that’s motivation.

Also don’t miss the deadline because the weekly deadline is awesome. You feel a camaraderie with the others in the program, knowing that across time zones and beyond oceans, all over the world there are other people going, ‘Dammit, Friday already,’ and typing whilst stirring dinner or feeding the baby or sitting on the train. Then as the posts roll into the 100 Day Book forum, there’s that huge sense of relief. People head to the private Facebook page to give metaphorical air punches.

Lesson – deadlines are motivational as well as stressful. And sticking to them gets you cash (back) in the bank. Result.

8. Give feedback generously. Once Friday has passed, there’s a bit of a lull while everyone recovers. But before you start thinking about this week’s 7000 or so words, you need to carry out the final part of your weekly commitment: giving feedback on at least 3 posts from other writers.

In the general Write Practice forum, feedback tends to be critical, in the literal sense – designed to help writers improve and finesse. In the 100 day book program I found that feedback is necessarily a bit softer. After all, these are words typed at speed for the creation of a first draft. Critiquing at the sentence structure level may not be relevant, because the chances are, the writer has barely had the chance to read through what’s been written, never mind start scanning for tone, pace, and dangling modifiers. So I found that offering support and encouragement, and more general feedback -‘this part here was a bit confusing’, ‘this was exciting!’ – was more appropriate than line by line critique.

Also – you’re pressed for time. Even just letting the other person know you read their post,  supports them. ‘Great job, keep going, nearly the end.’ This is what we need to hear on a massive challenge like this. Because we already know it can’t be perfect, and it won’t be the thing of beauty that the publisher gets to see. It’s rough, and we’re awesome for creating, in such a short space of time.

Lesson – giving line edits is great, but giving feedback on any aspect of the work will be gratefully received by people toiling away and courageously sharing the raw output of their creativity.

9. It’s not just the writing, it’s the editing. My words come out rough. I write on my phone, mostly, and autocorrect plays havoc with every sentence. I know what I meant, but to another reader it’s nonsense. For example my phone replaces ‘that’ with ‘tyst’ every time, even though i have removed ‘tyst’ from the internal dictionary and it is not an actual word.

So as well as finding time to write, say 700-1500 words every day, I also needed to find time to read through and correct that week’s 7000-10000 words before posting it on Friday.

I guess I could have posted the original, to show I had done the writing, but it quickly became clear that everybody was turning in really crisp, clear, spellchecked first drafts. I kid you not. So I had to spend two to three hours a week, on top of writing, going through my horrendous mess of work and making it so another human could understand it.

Lesson – go back over that writing calendar and find more time than you originally thought you needed. There must be more housework you can not do, right?

10. Do it. Writing a book is a huge undertaking. I mean, you’re writing a full length book. Novellas do not count in this challenge. Everyone is writing something of 60,000 to 120,000 words long. These are sweeping stories with characters, plot and resolution, or memoirs covering long lives in carefully researched detail. This is not some fluffy ‘you can be creative yay’ type of program. It’s the real thing. Plan it, divide it into weekly chunks, do the work, follow the guidelines and you will turn in a completed first draft on day 100.

When you finish, you’ve done more than write a book. You’ve demonstrated to yourself that you are capable of completing a tough challenge – a technical challenge, an endurance challenge, a time management challenge, a creativity challenge. You can do it. Here’s the proof in the form of this manuscript. For me, that’s priceless. I’ve spoken to many lifelong writers who have the passion and the dream, but who lack confidence. This program gives you that confidence, that inner certainty that if you have an idea and a plan, you will be able to complete your creative dream.

Lesson: do it. Join the 100 day book program. Because at the end of it, you can no longer have any doubt. You’ve written a book. You are a writer.

And so:

I joined the 100 day book program on an impulse one Thursday night, with no book idea and no plan, and a dozen existing commitments in the next three months. I invented a plot on the Sunday and posted it in the forum when the synopsis and outline were due. Then I wrote to a regime for 100 days. And now I have a book, a book which before that first Sunday, I had not even dreamed of. Even better, it’s a book I like, and my readers loved the characters I created, and were invested in the plot, even in this rough early draft. In the world I created, there’s a load more mileage and my writer brain is already itching to start a  sequel.

If I hadn’t signed up, I would have written something, sure, some chapters here and there of various works in progress, some short stories… blog posts. But because I joined, I have instead written a whole book.

That’s what I call a  result.

The 100 Day Book program is run by The Write Practice, with training given by bestselling author Joe Bunting. Details on the program here.

By the way: I don’t work for the Write Practice, I’m not on commission to promote them or anything. I just think it’s a really great community and I recommend it to anyone committed to improving their writing and following their creative dream. You can find out more on their website.

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K – Klingons on the starboard bow: my most successful fanfic ever and what to include in a hit story

Reading Time: 5 minutes
  • azchallenge fanfic success tipsI never expected to write a Star Trek fanfic. I always liked the TV show as a kid, but was in the ‘OK but no great fan’ level of interest. I like SF, but I couldn’t name any specific episode – or most of the characters. And then they recast Star Trek for a new audience, and suddenly I was extremely interested because they had written a modern story and had proper CGI and it was all exciting and thrilling, the way it must have seemed in 1966. ‘I must write,’ I cried in 2013, and so I did.

My throwaway, non-canon, completely AU (alternate universe) Star Trek fanfic story got more hits per day, consistently for weeks, than anything else I’ve ever written. It was amazing. I think it stands today at 80,000 hits. That’s not big compared to Twilight fanfic, but for me, it’s pretty good. At the time, I was writing fanfic in the Sherlock fandom – also very big back then – and if a fresh chapter didn’t attract 1000 hits overnight, I’d be disappointed. But this Star Trek one was in another league. Long after the story had ended, it kept – keeps – getting views. I don’t know how people are finding it, given that it must be way back on page 900 of the fanfic websites by now. But people are still finding it, and they are still reading it.

I got so much feedback too. That is my favourite benefit of writing fanfiction: engagement, day by day, with your readers. I learned so much from the feedback (more on that below).  My story was ‘different to other fanfics’ they’d read (I get that a lot). And it was an ensemble piece, which I had never tried before, and found I absolutely loved writing.

I’ve often idly wondered what was it about my most successful fanfics that made people love them so much. How come, years later, I still get breathless reviews from people who sat up all night reading them (some are long – 40,000 words, 60,000 words) or from people who thought they wouldn’t like it but then loved it – people who laughed and cried. One Elementary fanfic, Torchlight, has somehow earned a placed as a classic of its kind on TVTropes.com.

So what can I learn from these experiences to apply to my original fiction? Based on the feedback I got, here are my ideas for a successful story:

Know the conventions of your genre. A lot of fanfiction is experimental, playing with structure and form within the bounds of the story premise. This is great for writers learning their craft, and for readers to experience new forms. But for success, I find that understanding reader expectations is key. So a Sherlock or Elementary story must involve a proper mystery, and a Star Trek one must involve tech/space/politics/alien culture. I know that for my main genre of fantasy, readers will expect at least some action, some magic, and detailed worldbuilding.

Strong romantic arc. Two characters, with plenty in common but plenty to hold them apart, are thrown together by Duty or Peril.

Related: Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST). I’ve been told that UST is my thing, and certainly, it’s what I love when I read stories or watch TV. Smouldering glances and people not saying what they mean and readers thinking hey, is something going on here? It is! I love it. A bit of UST – even if maintained to the end with no get-together for the characters – can really pep up a story.

A proper story. A lot of fanfic is written purely for gratification, or because the author wants to see Mr Darcy meet Dracula. But the most successful stories have a fully-developed plot with its own internal logic and a character arc where the protagonist has changed and grown by the end. I know people are somewhat bemused by fanfic, but I can tell you, the standard of writing is often very high. Original or fanfic, you can’t just string together ‘scenes we’d like to see’ and then stop. You need a plot.

Ensemble cast. The tale of a ragtag band of characters is harder to write than a story focused on a single protagonist, but it brings so many benefits: your story can be in several places at once; you can showcase your setting and make your mystery more complicated; you can play with a multitude of different characters voices. Readers love the B characters as much as the A characters, sometimes more.  Look at Jane Austen fanfiction to see how many are devoted to Mr Collins or Kitty.

Thrilling action. Like romance, this depends on your genre, but including the heart-racing action scene will lift your story. It might be a scene in which Kirk, with a broken arm, wrestles a half-finished escape pod through enemy fire to the safety of a hospital ship (ahem!) or it might be where your romance’s heartbroken heroine has to tackle motorway driving for the first time since passing her test. Whatever the level of excitement you need for your genre, make sure you extract the most impact from it.

Humour. Even the most angsty fiction benefits from humour. It might be rather dark and sarcastic, or it might be side-splitting one-liners from your main charcater, but a touch of humour elevates every story. Humans are compelled to use humour, especially in tense situations, and a humourless protagonist is a fast way to turn me off. I find that the harder I try to write something serious or sad, the funnier it gets. Watch this space for my hilarious account of escape from domestic violence.

A snappy summary. This is vital in fanfiction, and all fiction. I will not click on a  story where the author has put something like, This probably sucks, I don’t know why you’d read it but please review me lol! Or where they have mis-spelled the word summary. The summary should mention the characters involved, the basic premise, and a hook to make readers want to click to Chapter One where you will, of course, grab them and never let them go.

I’m still pondering what magic combination of plot, characterisation, romance and humour made my most successful stories so popular. If I have a lightbulb moment, I’ll update you. And by the way, none of my fiction features Klingons.

If you’re curious about the fics mentioned:

The Logical Choice (Star Trek 2009 movie) An imagined first meeting between Uhura and Spock at the Academy, and the story of their romance. There is respect, and interest, and the promise of something more. Meanwhile, conspirators plot to sabotage Starfleet’s flagship.

Torchlight  (Elementary). Blackout in New York. It started with a touch, and whirled out of control until she never wanted it to end, and then it was over and the lights came back on. Sherlock and Joan and being in the dark.

Wolves (Three Musketeers) Anne of Austria is on a straightforward journey. All is well. She has protection. But she cannot shake the feeling that something is wrong. Featuring everybody. A light-hearted adventure.

I’ll be back tomorrow with Love, and how to write it when you’re really not in the mood.

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J – Jazz age writing

Reading Time: 2 minutes

azchallenge jazz ageI was recently obsessed with New York 1926. If you think that rings a bell, it might be because the Jazz Age is the setting for last year’s Fantastic Beasts movie, which I saw, and alone of all Harry Potter things fell in love with. Partly this was because it was about adults facing, sort of, adult problems. But mostly it was because of New York, and 1926. Steams ships and old cars and prohibition bars and detailed clothes and old-fashioned manners. And magic. It was a perfect storm, and when you threw in romance (as one must always do when Eddie Redmayne is playing the diffident lead) then it is impossible to resist.

I immediately wrote a what-happened-next fanfic with my own beasts and peril and of course romance.

But what I really wanted after seeing the movie, was to read more stories about that era, more peril and magic and romance. And as usual, I could not find much that I liked. It was all either too romance – thin plot, characters I disliked as soon as I read the blurb – or too 1926 – misery, terrible working conditions, poverty and inequality and depression and miners’ strikes. JK managed to create something which felt authentic but what absolutely wasn’t, which offered the fantasy view of the past we all crave. LaLaLand tapped into this same yearning for escapism.

So what are the elements of a successful Jazz age fantasy? I mean, what would satisfy me in a story?

Romance. It’s not the point, just a  happy side outcome.

Fabulous clothes – of course. These might be flapper dresses and pinstripe trousers and spats – or they might be farmboy bags and floral country dresses and a few vestigial Victorian grandmamas.

Manners, especially male manners. A comedy of manners is always good. Bertie Wooster was an idiot, but a courteous one.

Mystery. This was the golden age of sleuth fiction, still riding the thirty-year wave of the launch of Sherlock Holmes. Mysteries set in posh houses, peopled with the privileged stereotypes of the day, were de rigeur.

Old tech. Phones and gramophones and telegrams and letters written by hand, and typewriters and steam trains. Bakers’ boys and blokes on bikes, and handcarts and horses as well as trams, and the Underground or Le Metropolitain. Old tech! Check out this 1928 footage of New York City.

Prejudice which the author can whisk away with a wave of the Poetic Licence wand. Gay people can have happy endings, black people can take centre stage, female people can do interesting jobs, all is good.

Seek out some Jazz Age stories here:

  • The Mummy (1999) rocks that retro vibe, as does Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  • In a similar vein is the recent Tutankhamun drama with Sam Neill – leaning more to archaeology in the 1920s than urban life, but still awesome.
  • Of course there is The Great Gatsby.
  • I cannot fail to mention the later series of Downton Abbey.
  • Bertie Wooster existed for about forty years in a time era known only to his creator, PG Wodehouse. In several, Bertie visits New York in what appears to be the 1930s, but might also be the Fifties. Or the Twenties. If you’ve never watched the excellent dramatisation with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, then do!
  • Hemingway, basically.
  • The Peter Wimsey books of Dorothy L Sayers.

I’ll be back on Saturday with Klingons on the starboard bow – elements of a successful story

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D- Description and how to be better at it

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Description AZChallenge
This post is part of the April blogging AZChallenge.

Ah, description. Beloved of Victorian novelists and fantasy writers everywhere. How I loathe it.

What? But why?

Because mostly it doesn’t do anything, just sits there looking pretty and forming no useful purpose. It’s wordplay, which for its own sake does not make a gripping read. Yes, yes, deep literary novels. But I’m not kidding myself that I write those. I need to entertain, to paint a picture in fast order so my reader can understand what’s happening, and move on with the plot.

I have a few personal rules for description.

  1. Only put it in if you have to. In other words, if your character would otherwise be standing in a featureless grey void, mention their location and a key point about it. The station platform, in fog. The bedroom, which was decorated to suggest a dungeon. 
  2. Describe everything once. If you’ve already painted a picture of the mysterious tunnels in chapter 3, don’t go over it all again in chapter 29. You’re back in the tunnels. It might be a bt worse than before, or not, but you don’t need to describe them as if the reader has never seen them before: she has.
  3. There’s a separate point here about readers’ memories. Readers have excellent memories. If you’ve set up Bob, Judy and their daughter Mary in chapter 1, then when Mary reappears in chapter 13, you don’t need to mention all their relationships again. If you are worried that Mary might have been forgotten in the maelstrom of secondary characters you’ve introduced between then and now, ask yourself – what was the point of those characters?
  4. Back to description. As well as location, use it to create an immersive experience for the reader. That means, be specific. Mary is standing on a railway platform, great. We all have a vague idea of those. But by mentioning a few key specifics, the reader is forced into our version of the platform.  Mention the weird tulip-shaped litter bins they have at stations. Mention the corporate primary-colour paint on the toilet walls, and the artificially cheery greeting signs. Mention the noise of the glass ticket barriers, one of which is broken. Make this location your own. But bear in mind –
  5. This isn’t any old station, it’s the one where something is going to happen and you need to set up the specifics you’ll need for that action. A line about the nasty railway decor is great, but don’t go on and on about the slippery floor of the toilets unless Mary will be thrashing about on that floor later, fighting for her life with the demon that had camouflaged itself against the Welcome to Swindon sign.
  6. Use description for tone. This isn’t a tourist guide. So having established the location in enough detail that the reader understands where Mary is, and added just the specific, grounding details which will immerse the reader and allow the action, make sure the tone matches the purpose of the scene. Mary’s time at the station is an unhappy one. You know that because of the dreary bins, the toilets and the broken ticket barrier. (And the demon.) If I’d mentioned window boxes stuffed with spring flowers, a cheerful ticket inspector and a chuffing train – all of which might exist at Mary’s station – then I’m not getting the full benefit of description.  If the scene is going to involve a demonic attack, let the description reflect that. (Yeah, maybe there are spring flowers. But the reader must nonetheless know that something is very, very wrong.)
  7. Avoid descriptions of feelings. “Something is very, very wrong,” thought Mary. She hated it when things felt very wrong. Under the Show-don’t-tell regime, both those sentences are a no-no. Show Mary realising that the spring flowers have no scent, or finding that the ticket inspector touches her palm just a bit too long as he takes the ticket from her.
  8. Be metaphorical. If the toilet floor is slippery, well, fine, but that’s quite meh. What exact kind of slippery is it, what does it make the character remember or feel? Call up pictures in the reader’s mind. The demon’s head leaked fluid, slippery and slow like a cracked egg. 

I avoid long descriptive passages as a writer, because as a reader, I tend to skim over them. My reaction to most lengthy descriptions of rooms, landscapes and so on is So what? Now don’t get me wrong. Done well, description can bring the setting to life and make it one of the book’s characters. But done badly, it smothers the story and wastes the reader’s time on details which have no bearing on the plot.

What do you think of description? Do you love it? Do you avoid it? Let me know in the comments!

I’ll be back tomorrow with  E, Experience and how to get some.

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A – Antagonists and how to make them

Reading Time: 3 minutes
AZChallenge 2017
Antagonists are a challenge for me. AZChallenege blog for April 2017, A

This post is part of the April blogging AZChallenge.  Today it’s A.

I struggle with antagonists.  Almost all of my early stories have no antagonist at all. Or rather, none that is embodied in a handy walking, talking bad guy on the page.

Let’s take a look at some of my early Nanowrimo novels.

The Fairy G – the antagonist is sort of the evil colleague Cherie who steals Caroline’s ideas, but mostly just the magical Forces of Evil which she, the Fairy and hunky ethics consultant Jesmond Fry have to sort out.

Last Straw Summer – antagonist is Dangerous Isolation, and the nasty friends who are mean to our teenage heroine in her new home, sneer at her life choices and never write. There was some sort of deadline/jeopardy in this, but it wasn’t really an antagonist.

The Hollow Ring – Laura must battle the evil Societal Forces which have wrecked her job with their enforced equalism, placing idiots in positions of responsibility…

I was a very angry youngster.

So although you can make these bad guys fit the Antagonist role, none of them can really speak and act – they simply, are, which is boring to read, and write. How can I make antagonists that people hate, or love to hate?

  1. Think of the antagonist first. Yeah, yeah. Plotting not pantsing. But if my second thought after ‘this is a cool idea with a cool hero’ can become, ‘what would kill my cool hero stone dead?’ then I might get started with a human antagonist sooner.
  2. Write horror. The antagonist in horror is the main character so it’s what horror writers tend to think of first, whether it’s a Creepy House, Malevolent Ghost or Highly Educated Serial killing Cannibal.
  3. Write monsters. As above. Fantasy fiction is full of monsters who just want to eat the heroes, which makes for an easy antagonist.
  4. Make the bad guy the hero. I love this, but he still needs an antagonist. I guess that would be a good guy, who I imagine would be easier to come up with. Good guy wants to save the world, etc etc. But what would my bad guy hero want? I’ve still no idea.
  5. Write a sidestory/backstory for the antagonist before he or she went bad. Plotters tend to do this anyway. It’s one way into the antagonist’s motivations.
  6. Make your antagonist another good guy with a conflicting goal to the main character. This is Advanced Creative Writing, but actually easier than trying to justify some monstrous desire. Putting the hero in a position where every choice has merits but cannot make everyone happy, is great drama. Pity I’m rubbish at it.
  7. I can’t be that bad I guess since I just realised this js what happens in my current WIP. I actually have a panoply of characters with good intentions – OK, good-to-medium – whose interests just don’t match up.
  8. Practice spotting the antagonist in everything. Notice how most TV shows make it nice an explicit – the serial killer, the corrupt politician, etc. Some shows take it to a deeper level: in the Newsroom, the antagonists are those who want to commercialise news at the cost of the truth; in W1A, the antagonist is sheer hilarious incompetence.
  9. List your favourite bad guys and, just for fun,  create a mashup of them for your own use. What are their primary characteristics?
  10. Make sure you know how to defeat your antagonist. If you make it so that he can’t be killed, the hero will have a hard time winning. Which is good drama, except that there has to be some way to triumph or what is the point of the story? If Buffy had zero chance of ever overcoming the vampires, why would we watch? Make sure your antagonist has a weakness, like sunlight, or a pointy stick to the heart.

That’s my list for Antagonists. I’ll be back with B for Books, How Long Should They be? tomorrow.

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PaperRules for creativity! What I learned from PaperWeek

Reading Time: 7 minutes
PaperRules! paperWeek in full swing.
PaperRules! Here, PaperWeek is in full swing in my lounge – current reading, my novel scenes on index cards, notebook and pen, and my Wall of Books.

Firstly, sorry if you saw a bizarre empty blog post email earlier. I pressed a key by mistake… doh! The Poem a Day blog post is coming soon. Meanwhile, onto today’s post:

I spent a week focusing on paper for my creative activities: reading, writing, drawing, learning. Here’s what I found – the good, the brilliant and the rest. I am definitely going to extend PaperWeek into my life in general, because I feel it has helped me loosen up my creative muscles and look at writing, and imagination, in fresh ways. I learned so much about creativity and my overall verdict is – PaperRules!

I gave myself a list of ideas for the PaperWeek challenge, and tried to tick off as many as I could. I didn’t have much equipment – an old lined exercise book, a Bic biro, and some blank index cards. That was basically it.

I started with reading the Sunday papers, start to finish. That took two days’ worth of creative-time. I read two to three pages, then made notes or comments in my exercise book. Sometimes ideas leapt out at me. It’s not like online news, categorised by topic; in print, the  articles are arranged by their supposed interest to the reader – meaning psychiatric crisis in hospitals was next to information about global warming and an exposé of a dating site for older men to meet much younger women. Put those three together in your writer’s brain and ideas begin to flow. Just for that experience, PaperWeek was worth it.

minibook
A poem minibook I made for my daughter. She loved it! It was disproportionately satisfying to be able to write Made by Mummy on the back cover with a flourish.

I did skim the sports pages. (I usually just bin them, since I follow no sport of any kind.) The articles were all written in terms of epic battles involving Fury, Attack, Storm, Triumph – whereas the photos showed some men (and a very few women) competing for possession of a ball. Sports not involving balls were nowhere to be found. At the back were four pages of tiny print like the stock market news. It was intriguing. I wonder what else might generate such intense interest, in a  fantasy setting?

One PaperWeek challenge was to make a mini book. This I did, aided by instructions from the internet, and found it amazingly easy to create a minibook involving one blank sheet of printer paper, and one snip with a pair of scissors. I wrote a rhyming poem inside, coloured some simple illustrations, and hid it on my daughter’s pillow. She was thrilled, and loved the rhyme and the (extremely sentimental) words. I made her another one, even smaller, for when I had to travel away from home this week. She absolutely loved it and wants me to make more. So that’s a Mum win as well as a Creativity win.

imaginary-postcard
A postcard from an imaginary journey. Here, George complains of lack of handkerchiefs while the Wyverns close in.

Next, a postcard from an imaginary journey. I made this quickly while having coffee at a service station, en route to Lincolnshire and a customer site. I’d grabbed an index card before I left, and whilst sipping my mediocre £4 Americano, I wrote a plea from an aristocratic beast-hunter to his beloved, requesting fresh handkerchiefs and complaining about the staff. This servant had disappeared when he was supposed to be watching out for Wyverns.  I did my approximation of fancy Victorian handwriting (fake calligraphy is a thing!) and drew a stamp. In a very small space, I was still able to invent a scenario, a crisis, humour and an unreliable narrator who has no idea that the servant hates him and has run off, leaving the expedition at the mercy of supernatural creatures. Not bad for a six-by-four-inch space. I’ll be creating more postcards, and letters too, as part of my background project, the Journal of Imaginary Places. More on that another time.

If I’d had more time, I might have roughed out this postcard first, then redrawn it in fancy ink, with a handcrafted fake stamp, postmark, and so on. But in fact, the speed and roughness of my creation was liberating. I already knew it could not be perfect, so I just went for it. That’s a big lesson from PaperWeek.

fantasy-map
I am learning to draw fantasy maps, thanks to YouTube. This was my very simple attempt which I was nonetheless very pleased with.

Next on my challenge list was to draw a map. I am rubbish at drawing maps, and have zero spatial awareness. I have trouble envisaging epic vistas in novels – in fact, trouble with location in general.  I cannot seem to hold a big space in my mind. This may explain why I love scenes in cramped rooms, and shy away from vast fjords, plains, and so on. Anyway. I found a video on YouTube to create this simple map, and am disproportionately pleased with it. There are more videos – amazing videos –  to create the kind of maps you see in Tolkien special editions – and I will be returning to map making for sure. However, my own  fantasy novel does not need a map – or does it??

cards
I also sought out paper visual input. I have my WonderBook, but I also love the fantasy illustrations on these Oracle cards.

One source of inspiration which I had overlooked was the purely visual – pictures. I look at a LOT of pictures online, of course – I think humans in 2017 live for pictures – but it was a while since I really looked at pictures in a book. So WonderBook has been an inspiration. (Separate post on Wonderbook coming soon.) I also love the art on these ‘oracle cards’ – a kind of daily inspiration set. The aim is to pick a card and read the little book. It’s similar to the astrology section in the tabloids – today is a day for new thoughts cast off old ways, unless you already have, in which case, don’t. Basically harmless, and I love the art on this set. I’m not into tarot, but some of those sets have truly surreal illustrations, if you like that sort of thing.  I need more fantasy art in my life, and not just online. Holding the art is a different experience. I can’t express that very well. But it may explain my greetings-card habit.

placard
Mini placard. One challenge was to create a protest placard. I should write a protest song to go with it too. I could call it PapaerRules!

I wanted to create a miniature protest placard but did not have time, so drew one on a blank card.  I did not do as much drawing or doodling as I’d hoped this week so I’ll continue to work on it. I doodled my way all through high school and I am convinced it helped me concentrate. I have two kinds of doodle – automatic – repeating patterns of hexagons, swirls or boxes – and pictures of eyes. I’ve no idea if this Means Something. Therapists out there – I’d probably rather not know…

Novel map
A map of Bell’s novel structure. Visualising on paper helped me solidify the concepts in my mind.

A separate task for this week was to conquer novel structure.   For nine months, I have had tremendous trouble holding the shape of a novel in my head. (Not my novel – the theoretical novel as illustrated by Weiland, Lakin and Bell, plus others.) But now, egged on by PaperWeek, I was moved to draw a map of Bell’s structure, and it really helped.  I will recreate this, so that it looks better and illustrates the structure. but as an idea and a memory exercise, this was brilliant.

packing list
A packing list for a fantastic journey. Note the imperialistic tendencies of the traveller.

Also on Bell and structure – I wrote my novel’s scenes out on index cards. I had already done this in Scrivener, and again in an exercise book (see the post on Backwards Planning), but putting them on cards has been helpful in matching my scenes to the three act structure. I have not yet laid them all out, but I’m in a hotel room for a chunk of this week so maybe I’ll have some time and floor space there.

writing prompt jar
Prompt jar. I am writign down things seen in dreams, or phrases which strike me, or words I just like, for later inspiration.

My last project was a  writing prompt jar. For this, I caved in and puchased some readymade tiny tags, of the kind designed for scrapbooking and card-making. These I simply stuffed into an old Bonne Maman jam jar, and voila! a prompt jar. I have begun to write prompts on the tags – scenes from dreams, mostly, but more inspiration will come from Holly Lisle’s ‘Sweet Spot’ map.  (There will be a blog post on the map soon.)  Anyway I love the look of the little tags in the jar, because they were made by people with colour printers, and we’ll see if I actually use it when I need a prompt.

I created more than this – but overall, what a blast. I recommend a PaperWeek to anyone, especially if, like me, you spend far too much of your working life in front of a screen, and then continue the trend in your personal life, wrecking your eyes and your circadian rhythms. Working with paper forces you to take a screen break, and also jolts your creative mind into new ideas. PaperRules!

My overall PaperRules findings:

  1. Reading paper books helped me learn. Maybe I was channelling my schooldays, but it really seemed to make a difference when I read it on paper.
  2. Making notes and reflecting on my reading helped with… everything, especially learning and retention.
  3. Reading paper books gave me a lot less time for reading. I do most of my reading on my phone in odd moments, and can whiz through a vast range of fiction on my Kindle app, plus news articles, craft blog posts, etc.  I often read, and write, in a dim room while my child drifts off to sleep – not possible with a paper book.
  4. Reading paper books is way more expensive than reading Kindle. If I lived in a  big city I would probably be able to satisfy fiction and non fiction with the library, but my town library, while pretty good (you know, for a FREE service), can’t stock the latest books in all the areas I read. And if I want something specific, I have to buy it. So ebooks are still king for giving me most value for least cash.
  5. Reading newspapers again after a deliberate break of about five years, has been great. It’s also an expensive habit though, so I’ll save it for the occasional Sunday, I think.
  6. Related: PaperWeek has made me appreciate the amount of free, quality content which is available online!
  7. Drawing and diagramming is a great way to solidify ideas. I knew this, academically, but it was rewarding to prove it for myself.
  8. Creating in paper was relaxing and freed my mind. I felt more imaginative after I made a tiny book or a map. I gave up so many other creative pastimes when I began focusing on writing, and I’ve been the poorer for it. I will make time for non-word-based creativity from now on.

If you haven’t tried a PaperWeek challenge, here’s what you do:

  • Commit to reading paper as your main source of news/fiction/nonfiction.
  • Draw something every day, however doodlish and silly.
  • Create art with paper – paint, draw, cut, stick.
  • For more ideas see my full post on PaperWeek.

Have you tried a PaperWeek challenge, or something similar? What did you find from the experience? Let me know in the comments!

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PaperWeek – use paper to increase creativity

Reading Time: 4 minutes
PaperWeek starts
PaperWeek began at the weekend, sitting in my car with the Sunday paper, some writing printouts and a paper book. Old school!

I hereby declare PaperWeek. This is a week where I make efforts to do as much of my reading, writing and planning on paper – and generally to engage with paper a lot more than I engage with my phone screen. I’m looking for increased creativity, new ideas generated from time spent with a pen in my hand and no distractions, and less eye strain.

PaperWeek will be hard, as I do all my writing, and most of my reading, on my phone, using Evernote and Kindle. But as an experiment, I want to see how working with paper and pen (paint, ink, glue, scissors) affects creativity and inspiration. I hope the sensory, physical aspect will activate different parts of my creative brain.

There are supposedly other benefits to avoiding screens – reducing overstimulation of the brain (an idea which has been around since TVs first appeared in living rooms as a Dangerous Evil) – and reducing interference with circadian rhythms (from the blue light emitted by phones and tablets). So PaperWeek might give me better sleep and a calmer brain, but those are not my aims.

By chance, I was reading the BBC news and saw this, a happy coincidence, about paper’s revolutionary effect on Planet Earth.

I’m also going to be trying out various paper exercises to deepen my understanding of story structure, generate fresh creative ideas, and invent new magic systems.

I feel as if PaperWeek might extend beyond a week, but I’ll have to review it and see how practical it is. I read a lot of books on writing craft, as well as for pleasure, and  Kindle books are a fraction of the price of paper books. My phone – where I read my Kindle books – fits in my pocket at all times, far more convenient than a paper book.  Plus I blog using my PC, and keep up with distant family via Facebook. Screens will remain in my life even during PaperWeek. Nonetheless, I feel a focus on paper activities could help me.

PaperWeek plans 1
PaperWeek planning – my handwriting isn’t pretty, but I like it.

I sat and (handwrote) a list of paper-based ideas for PaperWeek. I aimed for six or seven items and got fifty. Here are my selections from that list, and a picture showing why I currently don’t handwrite much: my handwriting becomes illegible to me if I wait more than a week after writing it.

There were pages and pages of this (see the second pic below) and I felt like I could have kept going forever. That, I think, is the magic of having a pen in your hand and the sound of it rasping over the paper. There is a physical buzz from handwriting. I get this from typing, too, but I rarely type on a keyboard these days – it’s all phone dab dab dab.

PaperWeek plans 2
PaperWeek plans, more ideas, still mostly illegible. but precious to me nonetheless.

Anyway, here is some of the list, and next week I’ll share what I created, and let you know what effects PaperWeek has on my writing and my life.

  • Make a mini book.
  • Draw a fantasy map.
  • Draw a diagram.
  • Make a mindmap.
  • Create a plot board.
  • Write scenes on physical index cards and shuffle them.
  • Paint a picture.
  • Handwrite poetry.
  • Fold something – maybe origami animals, like in Blade Runner, or one of those fortune-teller things kids make.
  • Write in my diary (I am supposed to do this anyway, but keep getting behind).
  • Rip, or cut out shapes.
  • Make a clock with moving hands. Or maybe a Mood Dial.
  • Create a journaling jar, or a wish jar, or a bucket list jar.
  • Write a letter – or, more realistically, a postcard.
  • Design a crossword puzzle.
  • Doodle every chance I get.
  • Keep a tally like on a prison cell wall.
  • Create a hand-drawn tag cloud of important words.
  • Design a book cover.
  • Practice calligraphy.
  • Read paper books with my child. 🙂
  • Play a card game.
  • Print a story and edit it by hand.
  • Make a bookmark.
  • Study a map of where we’re going on holiday – a detailed Ordnance Survey map with every hillock and every tiny copse drawn and named.
  • Draw a timeline – of a story, of life events, of my writing career…
  • Create a pagan Wheel of the Year showing the ancient seasons.
  • Make an envelope and hide a secret letter in it.
  • Draw a building blueprint. Bonus points for using actual blue paper.
  • Draw the outline of an object – a wineglass, a telephone – and fill it with words.
  • Start a noun collection.
  • Buy the Sunday papers and read them. Even the sports pages.
  • Make a paper plane, or boat.
  • Write a message you would put in a bottle.
  • Make a name tag for yourself, with care instructions, like in Paddington.
  • Write a packing list for a trip to an imaginary land. Think wealthy Victorians. They packed everything. Or think poor Victorians – they packed a lump of cheese, a piece of bread and a knife, maybe a firelighting kit. Include items for the imaginary dangers you expect to meet. Dragon shovel, troll salt.
  • Make a scroll like the Romans might have used.
  • Write on unusual surfaces – paper cups or cereal boxes.
  • Make a miniature protest placard.
  • Write a cheque – or make a fake one for an amount you wish you had.
  • Write a Declaration, like Martin Luther’s 95 Theses from 1517, and nail it to a significant door. Or just make the Declaration and display it somewhere proudly.

I think a week is not enough time for PaperWeek. But I’ll let you know how I get on.

What do you do that is paper-oriented? Why do you do it with paper and not electronically? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

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Alphabet challenge – the AZChallenge and structuring your writing practice

Reading Time: 3 minutes
AZChallenge badge
Use a structured challenge like the AZChallenge to lend form to your dialy writing practice.

One of the things that can hold a writer back from a regular writing practice, is the lack of a way to structure the output. Perhaps you write every day, aiming for a target of 100, or 500, or 1000 words. But without structure, it can seem random, maybe a little pointless. What are all these drabbles you are turning out? How would they ever form part of a body of work you can point to and be proud of? Isn’t it all just writing for the sake of it?

Well – yes. Sort of. Writing practice, is exactly that – practice to form a daily habit. So in that sense, it doesn’t matter if your writing pieces are unconnected. However,  for a lot of people (including me) that feels unsatisfying. I want to be making progress, and creating something larger than, say,  Tuesday’s isolated 500-word ramble.

A random bit of TV helped me crystallise what was missing. I saw the songwriter George Ezra interviewed on Graham Norton about his breakout success in 2014. George was travelling around Europe in a gap year, and writing songs. And by the end of his trip, he said, he ‘had this body of work.’ And so he decided to do something with it. He released an album which won awards and generated several hit songs. (All of which I love, by the way, and especially his lyrics, and especially his first big song, Budapest).

But that phrase – a body of work – got me thinking. I wanted a body of work. I knew I wanted to write novels eventually, but until then, how could I feel like I was creating a work of some sort? I’m working on my novel, but still need to keep up my other writing practice. Yet I found that turning out wordcount like homework was not satisfying.  I realised that what I needed was a theme,  a magnet for my words to collect around. And just as I was wondering, I read about the April AZchallenge, or A-Z challenge.

As a way of structuring work, it could not be simpler: write one chapter, short story, blog post or nonfiction book entry, for each letter of the alphabet. Decide on a target per-letter wordcount you can handle, and go. Writing one piece per day would be normal, but I guess it wouldn’t matter how long it took you, so long as you completed all 26.

I quite fancy doing this for:

  • – a book about combatting anxiety (non-fiction)
  • – a series of memoir snippets
  • – flash fiction stories
  • – blog posts on writing – what a  great way to spend, say, March!
  • – poems
  • – anything, really.

I feel a challenge like this gives a writer an opportunity to grow. When I browse the posts on the excellent My 500 Words Facebook group, I’m inspired by what others are writing. Some are novelists like me, but others write memoir, poetry or blogs on a vast range of topics. I’m really feeling the need to expand my repertoire after months focusing on this one book. A structured challenge like this could be just what I need.

There are lots of other ways to structure your writing practice into a collection. Here are five:

  1. Create the daily word count equivalent of an acrostic poem – take a word which is significant to your theme, and write a piece for every letter of it. I’m toying with the idea of a collection of flash fiction called TRUMPOCALYPSE, a series of responses to the regime change in America.
  2. Write a set number of pieces on the same theme. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird might become Seven Approaches to Night, for example. Or Teacups. Or whatever you choose.
  3. Write one piece for every year of your life – or every place you’ve ever lived, or every person in your family.
  4. Pull up the current Top Ten hit list and write something inspired by each of the songs on it.
  5. Go to the newsagent. Take a snap of the front covers in the specialist magazine section and then use their weird and wonderful headlines as your jumping off point. History Today, Nursing Times, New Scientist. Make anything you like from them. The photo you took is the cover for your collection.

Setting yourself a structured challenge like this offers endless possibilities – and benefits:

  1. You will always have something to write about.
  2. You’ll practise discipline, as well as regular writing, to complete the task.
  3. At the end, you’ll have a work, a piece of art, conceived and created by you.maybe you’ll share it, maybe not, but it is something, a solid work, with a focus.

What could I do for a 26-item A-Z challenge?  What challenges keep your writing inspired?

A-Z challenge blog

A-Z challenge Facebook group 

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