NaNoWriMo Winner 2014!

Yes – I managed to complete a 50,000 plus word ‘novel’ in November and win NaNoWriMo 2014!

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

Lets get the stats out of the way first – as of yesterday, I topped 50,000 words. That’s not bad given that still left me a day to add a couple of thousand more. However, this month didn’t quite go to plan,  and it wasn’t actually until the 24th that I even hit the run rate, having trailed by a couple of days sometimes, whereas in 2011 I’d gotten up to speed almost a week earlier.

When I could sit down and write, I got words out – sometimes in an hour I could top 1,200 words. If there was a time in procrastinating, it was in the getting to the sitting down. Also, it was a much busier month than expected. That’s no bad thing.

I did most of my writing on the Thinkpad, in the Scrivener beta for Linux, and it worked really well as I expected.

wordcount2014

So how did the story development go?
Quite well actually. As I might have expected, it went in unexpected directions, mainly since I’d done virtually no pre-planning or outline, and somehow, the main protagonist turns out to be a bit of a bad person. Or not. I suppose it depends on how you look at it.  As for the ending, I think it answered enough questions, without trying to close every single thread off.

What’s it about?
In a medium sized nutshell, its about a person who reincarnates and can remember certain amounts of his memory. By nature, it’s meant to be a thriller, and parallels the lives he/she leads, and those he/she is in contact with, the the things they are all trying to achieve. It broadly takes place in 17th century London, the 1930s China, 1990’s London, mid 21st Century Yokohama, and then mid 22nd century Nagano. Of course, when you have a protagonist who has lived for an undefined amount of time, you can place them any time really, but for now, that’s the kind of scope I’m keeping to.

So what’s next?
As Chuck Wendig would say, this is something of a draft zero, so I need to go back and re-draft it – likely several times over the next few years. I have a list of things I want or need to change, to fix some continuity, tweak the ending a little to make it a little more suspenseful. There’s also a lot of texture to add. In 2011 I tried to put the texture in as I went, meaning that at the end I was dropping major sub-plots to get over 50,000 words. This time I wrote more roughly, but got most of the plot points in, I think when I rework it, it’ll top 80,000 words, but it should explain character motivation a lot. I expect to revisit it around the New Year break.

Anything else?
Well, I can say if there was a soundtrack this time it was ‘Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys‘ and their album (rather ironically) ‘Soft Time Traveller’. I picked it up in October after hearing some tracks on a Rathole Radio show, and the tracks ‘Walls’ and ‘Pornival’ really captured a couple of chapters.

Oh yes, this year I actually managed to come up with a title too – “Times of Incarnation“.

NaNoWriMo 2014: Week 1

So I’ve completed day 8 of NaNoWriMo 2014, and the best way to describe it thus far is ‘not bad‘. I came into this year’s event completely unprepared – I just didn’t do much beyond decide a concept for the story. This was certainly no master stroke, it was a combination of being busy with personal commitments and really struggling with enthusiasm to be honest. A bit of a departure from my first & last attempt in 2011, but my story idea this year also didn’t delve so much into any particular history or other real factual stance.

That said, here I am. After 8 days, I’ve done about 9,000 words – that’s fewer than the run rate of 13,333, but similar my last attempt, where it wasn’t until day 16 that I hit the run rate, which was lucky as I knew I had to finish 2 days early due to a business trip, whereas this month I should have until the 30th.

Enough of that, let’s talk about what I have done. The story is unfolding fairly well I think – I’ve established a morally ambiguous protagonist, and since this person reincarnates, I’ve already got female and male ‘versions’ on the go. There is also the mysterious and obligatory megacorp out to do bad things. Or are they? One thing I’m trying to do this time is make the morality of the various parties a little less clean cut.

So far almost all of the writing has been done on my Lenovo laptop in the beta version of Scrivener for Linux, on Mint 17 though I did do a few hundred words in the ‘real’ Scrivener on the MacMini also. So where have I been writing? Here’s a sample:

– The dining table – away from other distractions, and with a bit more space.
– The coffee table – sat on the floor, with a different view.
– The computer desk – I only did this once, at the Mac Mini, it just doesn’t seem to work for me.
– In the Kua Aina Burger Emporium – they have wide tables, and acceptable tea and coffee. Burgers are a bit expensive though so I haven’t actually been eating them.
– JR Tokaido Green Car train – this actually went quite well, but it’s too pricey to make a habit of.

trainwriting1

As far as a soundtrack, or playlist goes, I’ve been listening to the Rathole Radio podcast a little lately, and trying tracks from that  – mainly Creative Commons licensed works – specifically Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys with their “Soft Time Traveler” album.

As for a story title, I have a few in mind, which is amazing for me – I’m terrible with coming up with story titles. I’ll wait till next week to mention any, and see which ones are still with me. Right, back to the story.

NaNoWriMo 2014

Participant-2014-Profile

It has been three years since my first (and last) attempt at National Novel Writing Month in 2011, and though I enjoyed it, and was successful, I just didn’t get to do it in either 2012 or 2013.  However,  that was then, and this is now, and I’m ready to do it again. I even have a story in mind, and potentially,  just potentially, a title. I’m terrible at coming up with story titles. Also, I use too many commas.

If you have no idea what NaNoWriMo is, check out their FAQ, and by all means give it a try – it doesn’t start till November 1st., so there still the option to create an account.

This year again, I’ll be using Scrivener (also a sponsor of the event) but this time, it’ll be mostly written on my GNU Linux based laptop in the beta version of Scrivener.

 

 

 

Book Shelf: The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis

I waited a bit so I could read and cover all three of these books in one fell swoop – Ian Tregillis‘s Milkweed Triptych – Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War and Necessary Evil.

The overall story arc takes place in a forked alternate history starting in the 1930s, and ending in the 1960s by the end of the third book.

Though some one line blurbs pitch the trilogy as “British wizards vs. Nazi superman”, that’s a bit simplistic, and misleading. The books themselves also address this too, quite early on, so lets just lay down the the overarching premise.

The nazis have enabled humans to control fire, cold, be invisible and other abilities via their willpower by hardwiring their brains with electrodes drilled into their skulls, hooked up to special batteries, leaving them all with trailing wires hanging from their heads. This is the work of scientist Von Westarp, who as the series opens, is experimenting on orphans.

Upon discovering this, the British have looked to a group of old and grizzled warlocks as their own secret weapons. To be straight though, this is not a Marvel supervillain vs. Gandalf story. The warlocks do not perform magic as such, more they negotiate with supernatural entities called Eidolons for actions like freezing swathes of Europe, or providing a fog curtain across the English channel, all of which have a price. These negotiations are conducted in the allegedly ancient language of Enochian, and Tregillis’s descriptions of these characters are superb in places.

Boiled down, the two main character protagonists (or perhaps that should be antagonists) are Raybould Marsh, a British spy, and Gretel, a product of a Nazi medical experiment who is a kind of clairvoyant. Of the supporting characters there is Will, a reluctant well-to-do junior warlock, and Klaus, Gretel’s brother. It can be argued these characters are more three dimensional than the main two, struggling with decisions somewhat made for them. Will’s dislike of the blood prices he exacts to ‘pay’ the Eidolons grates on him, and drives him to breakdowns and swings in character. Klaus lives in his sister’s shadow for decades, trying to extract himself and finally know himself and make his own decisions and more than his sister embodies the result of living when someone can see your future.

Whilst Klaus’s ability is to become ghostlike and pass through solid objects, Gretel is able to see timelines and where decisions may lead. These abilities cease when the user’s battery runs low, as it amplifies their willpower, so batteries become a strategic tool in the books. The question you find yourself asking by the second book, is that unlike her peers, does Gretel even need the battery? These peers include the sadastic Reinhardt, with his ability to incinerate things, to the mentally crippled Kammler who drools, and must be directed by a handler, whilst his kinetic powers flatten any object.

I should say that it appeared to me that Tregillis hates Marsh – all the worst things in the world happen to him, and he almost dumbly plods on, as just a point of anger, driving the story. He’s not the only tragic character – most of the characters are tragic, such as poor Heike, another product of the Nazi Dr. Westarp’s experiments who is essentially talked into suicide, before her corpse is then the victim of another characters twisted affections.

The Milkweed Books
The Milkweed Books

The first book essentially covers the war, then moves forwards twenty years to a Cold War where the Soviets have been reverse engineering Von Westarp’s work, and then the final showdown in the UK. The title of the final book, “Necessary Evil”, is interesting in that it’s difficult to believe which of the evils was actually necessary, as they all seem like more of an excuse.

It’s a well written set of books, which seems was always intended to be a trilogy, as setups you don’t even notice in the first book pay off in the last. It does feel planned and structured, over the retcon some writers can be forced to do over such a long arc. This is vital though to build belief in Gretel’s ability to divine futures and steer events down the one line she needs. Tregillis outright poses one such line in Gretel having Heike kill herself so the Soviets would put her brain in a jar for study, and that that same jar would be kept in the same facility she is held in, years in the future, so that she can make use of that jar. It’s a combination of talent, foresight and sheer cruelty.

Each book is standalone to some extent, but I really can’t imagine enjoying any of them outside of the trilogy; it truly is a triptych – a whole divided into three parts.

The final book wraps up most of the loose ends and finally addresses the very physical, sexual tension which builds for three books between Gretel and Reybould. There’s more chemistry between those two characters than between Reybould and his own wife, trapped between his hate, and Gretels fear and detachment.

In summary I would say the books are definitely worth a read, and in case you’re wondering, it is a setup where it’s not clear who the ‘good’ side are, and perhaps none of them are – both sides ruin innocence and in a fantastical universe show the way wars make people do deals rational people would never entertain. There are some parts of the ending which I would liked to have been more decisive, but overall, after the three book journey, it does satisfy, and you realise the kind of willpower Gretel possesses not just because of her powers, but as a person, and how far that can drive Reybould to extraordinary lengths.

Bitter Seeds – Amazon.com
Bitter Seeds – Amazon UK
The Coldest War – Amazon.com
The Coldest War – Amazon UK
Necessary Evil – Amazon.com
Necessary Evil – Amazon UK

Bookshelf: Outliers

What makes people successful? Is there anything to the nature vs. nurture? What other factors impact success?

These are the kind of questions Malcolm Gladwell asks in his book ‘Outliers‘, drawing on anecdotes of people, both well known and no so well known about what had to happen for those people to become famous.

He runs through cases such as Bill Gates, and the factor of being born at the right time and with parents able to afford to buy his school a very expensive computer. Certainly, he had skill and acumen, but he was also in the right time at the right time – other equally ‘smart’ people perhaps were not. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, and follow quite long explanations of historical social rules. Some others, such as the opening chapter, illustrate how arbitrary rules like deciding the cut off dates for being in an ice hockey team can enforce an artificial limitation on some due simply to being born at the ‘wrong’ time of year, rules which are likely actually reducing the overall number of high quality professional players.

Though again he extrapolates from individual cases to show a theory or trend, some are educational; whilst I was aware many Jewish people in Europe became shop owners due to land ownership laws, I didn’t realise that in the early twentieth century, many Jewish immigrants became lawyers when the job paid little and many were pushed into merger and acquisition work as the dirty end of the profession – a part which would stand them in good stead in later years as the area took off.

Of course, this is anecdotal, and some of his ideas begin to stretch theories, such as ‘Asians’ being good at maths due to the kanji system and rice growing. For me personally, his assertion that Japanese are good at math due to long school hours, may or may not be true. Having worked in Japanese schools, I doubt it – it’s likely more that the schools here teach to a test, and little else, and it’s rote learning. That said, the idea that a small generation sandwiched between two larger ones has he benefit of more lower class sizes and so on, is intriguing.

Gladwell also has a decent theory that it takes 10,000 hours to get great at something, and many also fall by the way side by the sheer amount of work it can require in going from good to great. It also seems to equate to about years. In all he sees most of the successful as a crossroad of nurture, nature, timing and endurance.

Quirks aside, it’s a readable and personable book, and the telling of individuals’ stories makes it flow nicely, and will at least leave you asking some questions about the infamous ‘conventional wisdom’.

[Buy the paperback from Amazon.com – affiliate link]
Outliers: The Story of Success

[Buy the Kindle version from Amazon.com – affiliate link]
Outliers: The Story of Success

Writing in November?

November is almost upon us once more, and as many know, that’s the time for National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. The goal: write a 50,000 word novel from scratch in the month of November. I did it last year for the first time, and ‘won’, in that I completed the 50,000 words, and I outlined my progress over each week in a blog post, which got my brain out of the storyline for half an hour.

Writing that novel, even just a first draft, felt like a real achievement, but I learned a lot more about writing during the month, and a few other things, like making sure to exercise, or you end the month feeling like a block of lard. So am I getting ready to assault NaNoWriMo one more time?

Er…no.

I’ve decided to do it every other year, but I will be doing a lot more writing in November than I usually do – I’m aiming to finish first drafts of four short story ideas, and if possible an edit of the novel I started in NaNoWriMo last year, which amazingly still lacks a title.

So November will be a big push on the writing front, but on a few projects I want to close out, not on one behemoth, if only because I currently have two novels needing pushing out now!

Anyway, if you fancy even trying to write a novel, check it out, as there’s a lot of good information, tips, support and community on there to help you out.

Book shelf – Rendezvous with Rama

It’d been a while since I read some classic science fiction, so I just finished up Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘humanity’s first encounter’ work “Rendezvous with Rama”. Somehow, this is the first of Clarke’s sci-fi books I’ve ever read, which, given the man’s stature in the genre seems almost strange in itself.

The last couple of first encounter books I’ve read have been quite different. I thought ‘The Mote in God’s Eye‘ by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle was well crafted, but somewhat laborious to read, and though interesting, just didn’t quite hit the spot. After that was ‘Blindsight‘ by Peter Watts, which I found far more interesting, both for the aliens and their native habitat, but also for the rather dangerous relationship between the human protagonists, who appear far more of a threat than even the most aggressive alien. It’s also available as a free e-book still I think.

Of course, most first contact novels work along the lines that they act as a mirror to the humans race itself, as we project our own fears onto the unknown.

Rendezvous with Rama‘ takes a different tack, partly focusing on the state of humanity at the time of the event, relaying the politics of the planets, but also playing on the fact that actually, first contact may be, as in Rama’s case, a fleeting bypass where we only get a tiny glimpse of an alien civilization as it speeds through on it’s way somewhere else, in this case, in a giant cylinder which is intercepted by a makeshift commercial crew as the only people who could intercept it in time.

The novel plays up the limited time angle well as you know the book is nearing the end and they just don’t seem to have got to the core of the alien concept, and then it looks like they might, only to be dashed as they have to abandon the mission and head back.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers away, but it’s fair to say it’s more about the idea than the characters, who aren’t too deep, but the pacing it excellent, and you’re always checking how many pages are left, hoping they can crack the clues in time. It’s perhaps not true hard sci-fi, but it isn’t fantastical either, and most of the developments follow a well thought out premise and the world and the potential creatures encountered do seem to obey the rules of the world within the cylinder.

It’s definitely worth the read, if you haven’t read any classic sci-fi lately, or if you’re looking for something that just unfolds for you.

Bookshelf: Wool

It’s always good when you happen upon a book series by an author you don’t know, and it turns out to be very decent indeed. I was actually introduced to the ‘Wool’ series written by Hugh Howey by a friend who happens to be an avid reader. Wool as it currently stands is a 5-part compendium of short stories, and some further prequel reading in ‘Wool – First Shift’.  I picked the 5-part omnibus up for 5 USD on Amazon as a Kindle e-book.

wool

I don’t want to give too many spoilers here, but it’s almost inevitable. Essentially it’s the story of the people of the Silo in the future. The remnants of humanity live in a bunker called the Silo, unable to go outside, and indeed forbidden to even speak of the intent.

The silo – 144 floors going down into the earth – has simple governance, a sheriff, a mayor and groups of levels tasked with functions such as hospitals, mechanics, IT, food production etc., all connected via a massive spiral staircase from top to bottom with porters running messages and goods up and down. On the top floor are massive LCD screens showing the brown apocalyptic view outside, the scene coming from cameras mounted outside which gradually degrade in picture quality from the never ending toxic winds until someone speaks the words that they wish to go outside, at which point they are suited up and sent outside to clean, using wool pads to clean the cameras – and hence the title ‘Wool‘. They always clean, and they never come back.

The stories get progressively longer, with some characters continuing from one short story to the next. The writing is functional but does lend a certain claustrophobic feel to it, and you can feel the author’s development and confidence grow with each of the 5 initial story lines. Much of the drama revolves around the interactions of the Mechanics who keep the generators running, pump oil and live in the bottom floors, and the IT department and it’s somewhat sinister boss. There are a good collection of characters, and fortunately Howey is willing to kill off characters as required which I count as a plus (I’m looking at you, most manga series!), meaning there’s some good weight and consequence to the stories.

Howey also manages to give more depth (so to speak) to his world as he goes on without any of it feeling too reworked (or retconned) to fit the earlier stories. Whilst some of the twists are a bit obvious he still managed to pull a few from nowhere even in the 5th installment.

Again, I can’t go too much into the plot without spoilers, but much of the revelation and plot drive is based on the simple questions we would have in the Silo – why is it there, who made it, what is it’s history?

For 5 dollars it’s worth a download (or buying the print edition) to find out.

Wool

NaNoWriMo 2011: Winner!

Well, after 28 days of solid writing, thinking, more writing, less thinking and then more writing, I was able to submit my novel to the NaNoWriMo servers, and just as Scrivener had told me, I was clocked in just under 51,000 words, so I’m a winner!

The Last Week

As you can see from the last week stats below, taken from the NaNoWriMo site I was [finally] getting ahead of the game on word count and really it was because the story was just flowing out and everything seemed to be falling into place. I added a few more secondary characters which I think added a bit more texture to some of parts of the story and helped the plot line, but still, the issue was getting to the end of the story, and so I had to simplify some of the subplots, and one arc which I’d decided in week two I was going to have to miss out never made it back in.

Writing Stats
Writing Stats

I’ve been really pleased actually with the writing rate and that I was having to decide what to take out, rather than trying to come up with new things to put in to fill space, though paradoxically, new things were creeping in just because they seemed to fit what was going on.

So what did it end up being about? Set in an alternate steam technology based version of Japan’s opening up to more external influence and trade in the mid nineteenth century, there is a stand-off between the three regions left from the recent civil war, and it tells the story of how various groups are attempting to gain technology and power in order to take on the others.

The narrative is driven by three main protagonists trying to find out who or what is is pushing events forwards following the murder of a trader outside Yokohama, but draws on rogue British delegates, Royal Societies, a splintered Japanese samurai class and just normal Japanese people trying to decide what they want now that there seems to be so many new opportunities.

One interesting thing which happened which I wasn’t expecting or intending, is that the story, characters and scenario actually lend themselves to a second story which would largely need to take place in Britain (though not in London like many steampunk novels) and Hong Kong instead of Japan.

On Winning

I have to say I felt a real sense of accomplishment upon seeing that I’d topped 50,000 words, after what had become a habit, and almost a compulsion over the last four weeks, going from feeling like it was a grind, through to a feeling of obligation, and then in the second half of the month of actually being keen to sit down and get on with writing. As you can see from some of the posts, word count does become a obsession at the beginning, I suppose because you’re left with the impression that you’re behind schedule, and then that disappears when 2,000 words a day just flow out. I’ll admit that since ‘winning’ I’ve had that sense of ‘what now’?

Working Method

Broadly speaking, the vast majority of my writing was done in one of two scenarios – either on my MacMini, at the desk on a full size keyboard, or on my aging MacBook at the dinner table, and it all seemed to work well. I definitely recommend Scrivener – even though I’ve used it for a few years for short stories and such, I really found why it’s such a good writing tool this last month, making it simple and quick to jump between writing, character info, story research all within the one app and quickly able to find things, without interrupting the flow.

That concept of flow was essential – as I learned early on, to stop to check and correct grammar and sometimes even spelling is a massive mistake and to just keep going as NaNoWriMo is about getting a novel first draft done, not the finished article.

Somehow I thought I’d have developed a ‘soundtrack’ during the writing, but it never really happened; as I look through the list of recently played tracks in iTunes it’s a selection of certain songs, and I think by hour I probably wrote mostly without music. The tracks I did listen to though were quite interesting – some were tracks I hadn’t listened to in years – and seemed to fit certain chapters of the book – I listened to Jean Michel Jarre’s “Revolutions” [1988] which fit some of the steam punk parts, and also the soundtrack to the classic “Akira” by Geinoh Yamashirogumi which has a mix of more traditional elements and modern styles.

One rather sad thing is that I still don’t have a title with my NaNoWriMo dashboard recording it as “Japan Steampunk Novel”.

So What’s Next?

My plan right now for the novel is to let it sit for a few weeks, and then start a second draft. Yes, I’m going to see this one through to some kind of ‘finished’ version, something I struggled with on my only previous attempt at a full length novel. I’m keen to add in a couple of story arcs in which never made it into this initial draft – the main one being the arms dealers supplying one of the main factions which was to be set in my home town in the UK (Grimsby) which in the timeframe of the story was ramping up as a major port. This makes one subplot (the factions within the British Government and Royal Societies) a bit clearer and shows that the main story is just another part of a larger political policy being executed.

As for NaNoWriMo, will I be doing it again next year? I honestly don’t know. It required a lot of time and and patience from the family, and November is quite a busy time of the year for us with other events, so I really don’t know, though certainly the next time I do NaNoWriMo, I wont be as worried about word count.

That said, it has been a lot of fun, and I would definitely encourage people to give it a try next year – or any month really – and just crank out 50,000 words.

NaNoWriMo 2011 Winner
NaNoWriMo 2011 Winner

NaNoWriMo 2011: Week 3

After twenty one days of writing, of hammering out words at a keyboard, do we really need to talk about the mere number of words? So what have I learned this week in NaNoWriMo? Well, I’ve been in the situation this week where I’m actually less worried about my word count, and more about the story progression.

For one, writing every day is not always that good for your story, or for you. Especially if you work, and probably even if you don’t, sometimes you need to let the story sit in the corner for a while. A couple of times this week I went to the trusty (but not really amazing) Mac keyboard, and started to type, and it wasn’t that I had writer’s block – I knew where I wanted to go – but there was this kind of fatigue about the actual act of writing.

I’m concerned that in my story whilst I’m moving the plot along, it doesn’t feel fleshed out, and more and more I’m leaving bookmarks with comments to say ‘insert scene here about so-and-so’. I probably have a few thousand words of snippets in my character profiles to add in. So the take away from this week has been that you need to take days off from the writing itself, even if you can’t get the story out of your thoughts – just write the ideas down, dictate them into your phone or whatever system works for you, and type them type them up later.

I’m taking this as a good sign – more bits to add in a second draft. In that light one thing I always knew, but at this seeming crunch phase I need to remember, is that NaNoWriMo is about turning out 50,000 words, not a truly finished novel. It’s a first draft, not something you stand outside of publisher’s offices with, pimping it to important looking people as they look to leave for the weekend.

My writing locations are still essentially split between the Mac Mini at my desk in the computer cupboard, and my old Macbook, where the latter is usually on the dining table. At night I kind of like the emptiness of the living room.

I did try a nearby family restaurant, with it’s 180yen drink bar, and that worked, but after a couple of hours, I had to get out, so as to not hear any more Rocky soundtrack, and so I didn’t have to listen to old ladies saying why Italian women weren’t as good at cooking as Japanese women (no, really).

So now I ease into the last week – and for me NaNoWriMo finishes on the 28th, as I will be on a business trip after that, so I have quite a few words to go, but so far, I’m hoping, still, to join the ranks of the ~18% of people who finish each year, and at my first attempt. Will I be doing it next year? No, I think I’ll give Movember a chance!

However, if you must know I am for once, ahead of the game today –  36,050 words  against the par of 35,000!

Oh yes, and I still don’t have a title.