Monday, February 27, 2012

Writer's Kit - Stuff and Us

Being a writer means you don't need much stuff, right? Just a pen, some paper and a brain. And an internet connection, a computer, a blog and a smartphone for on-the-go Tweeting and platform-building . . .

But if we discount the platform-building and networking and focus exclusively on the writing, we don't need much. Like I say, brain and bare essentials.

Or so I always thought.

Each November, one of my favourite threads on the Nanowrimo boards is the Nanowrimo Survival Kit, where participants post about the items they need to get through the month-long sprint to 50,000 words and glory. It's just a wonderful read and a lovely insight into people's funny little writing habits. The folk who can only write if they have their fluffy slippers, or who find they do their best work if they have a Laughing Buddha on top of their computer. It's a quirky little glimpse into the minds of others and I just love it every year.

Some years ago, a friend of mine gave me a writers' kit for my birthday. It was a beautiful patterned box contining a notebook, a colourful pen, a tea-light holder, a box of my favourite herbal teabags and some slipper socks. The teabags may be long gone, but each year I assemble my Nano kit in the box and it always reminds me of the original gift :)

In spite of the fact that I do most of my writing on the go, I love the idea of a writers' kit.

This is what mine would contain, in an idea world:

Notebook (large, for brainstorming)
A few pens (you never know when one might run out!)
Herbal teabags, lots of
A suitably bookish mug - possibly my Strand bookstore diner mug

Cosy socks
Some writing books - I rarely refer to books while writing but it's nice to have them!
Laptop and charger
USB drive, for backups
Snacks - crisps, popcorn, small chocolate bites, Maltesers. . . . this could be a list all of its own!

What about you guys? What would be in your fantasy writing kit?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Lists and Me: Tracking Plot Developments

I am a list-maker. I say this not with pride, but with shame - I have been known to not do things because I was too busy making lists of things that had to be done.

But there is one way that I have found listmaking useful.

At the moment I'm about two-thirds of the way through my work-in-progress. I took a short break from writing and now that I'm back at it, I have lost my way a bit. I'm trying to re-enter the world of the book.

This is something I have found helpful.

As I re-read the book, I make a list (by hand) of what happens in the novel. It looks a bit like this:

1. Claire is at work
2. Row with Penelope
3. Gets a text from Dot
4. Goes to Max's house
5. Looks through books.

and so on, for the duration of the book (which, by the way, filled four sides of lined A4 paper).

I love doing this. It means I can look down the list and see at a glance that Claire has three rows with Penelope (and I can probably cut two of them), that there are four scenes in her office (and I should make sure that they don't feel too same-y), or that there are seventeen lines between Event A and Event B (and since they're closely related, I should probably have one following the other before the reader forgets about the first one!).

I also feel it allows me to look at the whole book in a way that reading it doesn't. When I read it, I'm invariably concentrating on the bit I'm reading, usually tweaking the language and replacing the single-quotation marks with doubles and swearing at the crappy bits. With my list, I feel I can look at the whole book and say 'too much waffle' or 'too abrupt' or 'too many rows with bloody Penelope.'

How do you get back into a book you haven't worked on for a while? How much caffeine/chocolate/swearing is involved? Do you have any tricks for making sure your plot makes sense, and stopping your Penelopes from stealing the show?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Three Wishes

You know those conversations you had when you're a kid, where you asked the other kid lots of questions about their favourite things and what they wanted to be when they grow up? Those ones that you truly believed got you to the very heart of what someone was really like?

I only ever cared about the answer to two of them. One was 'What's your favourite chocolate?' because if the answer was Galaxy, I'd found myself a soulmate. The other was 'If you had three wishes, what would they be?'

As I've grown older, I've realised I only have one wish - to be happy. How I achieve that isn't very important, and I have no idea what's likely to make me happy and what isn't, until it happens. I used to wish for book deals and cars and holidays and pay rises and everything else you can think of - but I've learned that these things aren't important. What matters is whether or not they make you happy.

However, that answer to the 'Three Wishes' question is very boring! My fun answer is:

1. To be able to read, understand and speak any language I needed instantly.
2. To be a professional novelist and travel writer.
3. To always have exactly a million euros in the bank, no matter how much of it I take out :) Come on! I'm not made of stone. . .

What about you guys? What are your three wishes? And while we're at it, what's your favourite chocolate?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

I just finished Divergent, the first novel in a dystopian YA trilogy by debut author Veronica Roth.

There were a lot of things I loved about this book. The setting - post-apocalyptic Chicago - was compelling. Our heroine, Beatrice 'Tris' Prior, lives in a society that divided into factions after a devastating war.  The factions are defined by the virtue they prize the most - Tris is born into Abnegation, which values selflessness above all. But at the age of sixteen, everyone takes an aptitude test which determines what faction they are best suited to - and the following day, they can choose to stay in their own faction, or move to another one.

The novel follows Tris from her highly unusual test result through her decision to move from Abnegation into a far more interesting faction, where she discovers all kinds of dangerous secrets.

Tris was an unusual YA heroine - she is extremely tough and strong-willed, and lacks any of the traditional redeeming features that writers tend to heap on characters to make them likeable. At no point does she cuddle a puppy. She isn't endearingly clumsy. Even when she develops a crush, she's a hard-ass about it. Veronica Roth has created a genuinely compelling action-girl and I liked Tris enormously.

My main criticism of the novel was the predictability. Tris is smart. She is shown to think laterally and clearly in a crisis. But I arrived at several major conclusions before she did (and I am one of those people who *never* guesses the ending ahead of time). The only surprises came from characterisation - I was surprised at how some of the characters rose to various challenges (or failed to), but the plot turns were telegraphed ahead of time.

That being said, I felt the characterisation, the writing and the setting were more than enough to compensate for the slight predictability of the plot. Fans of Ender's Game might especially enjoy this, and I will definitely be seeking out the next book, Insurgent, due for release in May 2012.

A solid four stars out of five.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Character Flaws

Rosslyn Elliot has written a great post about character flaws over at Rachelle Gardner's blog. She discusses the difference between a cosmetic flaw that only affects the protagonist (say, insecurity) and a real flaw (to continue with the same example, perhaps the tendancy towards jealousy that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with insecurity).

It made me realise a flaw with one of my own works-in-progress. My main character, Becky, was recruited for a dangerous secret job shortly after leaving college. Her friends know she has a dangerous job, but they don't know what it is. And because she can't talk to them about her job, and because her job is extremely demanding, she doesn't talk to them very much. She doesn't have much to talk about anymore - apart from her job.

But Becky blames her friends rather than herself for this. When friends that she hasn't contacted for a year don't include her in plans, she is angry. Why don't they understand that she's just too busy to see them? It takes someone else to point out that they're not being unreasonable - they're responding to her behaviour.

In the most recent draft, I left that theme there. But now I see that it's worth examining it more closely. What does this say about Becky? What trait does it reveal?

I think it reveals selfishness. She assumes that she is right. She assumes that the world ought to organise itself around her. And she assumes that if she doesn't see her friends, it's because they're too lazy or rude to contact her. She doesn't see that friendship is a two-way street, and she doesn't see that she's expecting her friends to be understanding about a situation that they are not fully aware of.

But mostly, she's the only person who suffers from this. I'm sure her friends are sorry to lose her, but Becky is our point-of-view character, so we only see her suffering for it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have a cosmetic flaw.

This is something I can examine. If Becky is self-absorbed, there are other ways that this can come out. It's very likely to come out at work, which is where we see her most often.

And it can only result in a better novel.

What about you guys? How do you find writing flawed characters? Hard, easy, fun?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gadgets That Rock

Inspired by Christine's great post on Wednesday (gosh, how often have I said a version of that sentence in the last few years? I bet if you Googled 'inspired by Christine's post' I'd come up), I want to talk about gadgets today. Christine shared the Top Five Gadgets in her life - I only have four, but her fifth sounds like a tempting buy . . .

1. My mobile phone. I have the world's dumbest smartphone, but I love it (kinda). More accurately, I love having a phone. Couldn't live without one.

2. My netbook. Teeny laptop with massive battery life - what's not to love? This is where my novel lives, it's what I use to watch TV and what can be carted into work for lunchtime writing sessions without snapping my back in two. I possibly love it more than my phone, but I put my phone first because I use it more often.

3. My mp3 player. I have the world's oldest, clunkiest mp3 player because I cannoy bear to get rid of it. It has 20GB of storage and most players today (apart from the iPod, which I avoid because I had a bad experience with one some years ago - I know that sounds like it bit me! It just never worked for longer than 30 minutes) top out at 4GB or 8GB. I have decisiveness issues - I need all my music with me! If a suitable alternative ever come son the market (seriously, electronics companies, if you're reading this - the market needs a middle ground between 8GB and 160GB. Get to work and call me when you're done) I will lay this one gently and reverently to rest after its years of devoted service. *sniff*

4. My Kindle. This is a relatively new edition to the family. It arrived this time last year and was given a very pretty leather cover in May 2011 and it has been my constant companion ever since. It allows me to read American books that don't arrive in bookshops here, it allows me to buy my books cheaper than I can on the high street, and it means I can read my own books on it and thus spot errors more quickly.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Laziness and the Year Ahead

It's my birthday today, so naturally my thoughts have turned to what the next year may have in store.

And it occurred to me that, as well as thinking 'I hope I get an agent,' 'I hope I get a deal', I was also thinking 'I hope I make good decisions. I hope that if neither of my queries this year are successful, I don't rush to self-publish something substandard. I hope I can overcome my tendancy to overuse the letter S.'

The landscape is opening up for writers. I can only speak for myself, but I still want an agent, a book deal and a publishing house. If I can't get those things, self-publishing is an option I'm happy to explore. But when you're facing writing a query - which I've never done, and am quite nervous about - and then sending it off, waiting for a reply, facing rejections, and then if you are lucky enough to get an agent, facing more submission and rejection as your novel does the rounds of publishers - well, it may be what I dream of, but it's also scary as hell.

And this morning I thought to myself: 'Whether or not I have a book out in the next year could be entirely my decision. I could bypass all that and do it myself.'

A reasonable thought. Writers the world over are having the same thought. And when you look at success stories, like Catherine Ryan Howard and Talli Roland, it looks tempting (although, as I'm sure those two fabulous ladies would attest, not easy).

But at the moment, it is not the right decision for me, because I would be doing it solely because I'm a lazy cow who doesn't want to write a query letter at the moment :)

I hope I make the right decisions, but I also hope I make them at the right time and for the right reasons. Laziness is, sadly, not a good reason. . .

Are any of you guys facing, or hoping to face, big decisions in the next 12 months? How confident are you that you'll make the right choice?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Making Blogging Work For You

Last Friday's post about the A-Z Challenge elicited some interesting comments, ranging from 'I hated it last year - never again!' to 'Sign me up now please!'

Which reminded me of one of the most basic things I've discovered on my blogging journey.

Blogging is great. It's fun, it connects us with fantastic people, it provides a great opportunity for writing practice. And there are very definite rules on doing it well (Catherine Ryan Howard writes brilliantly about this in her book Self-Printed).

But beyond the basic rules (Do Not Be A Pain In The Arse, Do Not Complain About People, Act Like A Professional), blogging is about finding your own place in the madness. There are millions of blogs out there. Speaking purely from memory, it seems that about two-thirds of them are written by unpublished/aspiring writers. There is only way to be one of those bloggers and not go completely nuts - that is to decide what you want from blogging and go after it, without worrying about what everyone else is doing.

Don't do a blogfest because everyone else is - decide if you want to do it. Don't blog about your querying process if you don't feel comfortable making it public. Your blog is your space. Use it as you want to.

With that in mind, I may consider turning my entire blog into a fansite about Cadbury's chocolate. I'm having one of those weeks where no Creme Egg in Dublin is safe. . . .

Since I was yakking about the A-Z Challenge last Friday, it's only fair to provide a sign-up link now that the challenge is open for registration. You can register at any of these fab blogs:

Cruising Altitude (DL Hammons)
Tossing It Out (Arlee Bird)
Amlokiblogs (Damyanti Biswas)
Alex J. Cavanaugh (Alex J. Cavanaugh)
Life is Good (Tina Downey)
Cruising Altitude 2.0 (DL Hammons)
Retro-Zombie (Jeremy Hawkins)
The Warrior Muse (Shannon Lawrence)
The QQQE (Matthew MacNish)
Author Elizabeth Mueller (Elizabeth Mueller)
Pearson Report (Jenny Pearson)
No Thought 2 Small (Konstanz Silverbow)
Breakthrough Blogs (Stephen Tremp)
Coming Down the Mountain (Karen Jones Gowen)