Sunday Update 17/02

This week I do not have writer’s block. Because writer’s block is not a thing. Also because writing isn’t the problem. Editing is the problem. Is there a word for that thing where you open Scrivener and jump back and forth between various scenes not changing them in any way and then minimise the window and play Minecraft instead?

I’ve reached the stage of editing where my current draft is like a tangle of yarn. When you’re untangling yarn you have to do it in the right order or you just end up making things worse for yourself. I’ve you pull on the wrong loop you just turn the rest of the tangle into a snarl. Maybe you end up with knots. Maybe some of the knots have to be cut out.

Writing earlier drafts has not prepared me for this. When you hit a problem with a first draft the solution is nearly always to just jump in and write your way out of it. When you hit a problem with a second draft the solution is usually to either change the order of scenes or write an additional scene. The worst thing that can happen is that you have a bunch of words that you can’t use in the current project or you spend five minutes fixing continuity.

I’ve already made editing errors on my current work in progress that have cost almost as much work to fix as an entire first draft. I had to rewrite a couple of scenes that I’d already rewritten once. Then I had to move one of them. Moving a scene this late in the project is not a five minute job. It causes a cascade of changes to other scenes and I have no idea if moving the scene was right.

At the same time as I’m working out how to move these scenes around and what needs to be changed to fit I still have major problems with the last part of the novel. Do I finish the rewrites of the earlier scenes first or do I fix the the last part? If I pick the wrong bit to work on then I could be creating more work for the future.

Or maybe I need to take a long hard look at my process. Maybe the real problem is that I don’t have a robust enough back up system so it’s hard to just revert to an earlier version?

The other thing I’ve been thinking about this week is sleep and how maybe I should stop trying to resist it and just go to bed every time I get sleepy.

When I first became ill, or at least no noticeably ill that I couldn’t continue to pretend that I wasn’t ill, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). When I was later diagnosed with Fibromyalgia I just sort of assumed that I the CFS was a misdiagnosis. Now I’m not so sure. The waves of tiredness that have been overcoming me recently do sound a lot like CFS. Maybe I have both. Which means I have to do some research into the current thinking about CFS and how to manage/treat it.

It would be great if the next thing that goes wrong with my body could be something simple, treatable, and uncontroversial. I am so over chronic, untreatable disorders that a significant minority of the medical profession prefer to pretend don’t exist.

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When Executive Dysfunction Attacks.

On one of my Sunday Updates I wrote about how bad my executive dysfunction has been recently and it continues to be pretty difficult to deal with but I’ve noticed something weird. It feels like I’m trapped in a mire of dysfunction in which I’m unable to get anything done. It feels like I’m just lying here, immobile, unable to function, in an extreme state of procrastination, but I just crossed three things off my to do list. All three things done today.

You might be wondering if the list was some kind of bullshit productivity hack – make a list of all the things you’ve done today so you won’t feel useless – but that’s not what it was. That is a thing I do sometimes. Creating a ‘done’ list can make you feel better about how you’ve used your time. Often the problem isn’t that you’re doing nothing it’s that you’re doing stuff other than the stuff you think that you should be doing. Again, that’s not what’s happening today.

I have done things that I intended to do, even against my own resistance to doing them. I’ve done research, communication and household chore tasks today. I even did a bit of work on my current novel (Project Kindness). But it feels like I’ve done nothing.

Am I feeling like this because I haven’t done enough? Is there something more important that I’ve forgotten to do? Am I beating myself up about this in order to not think about something else? Or could it be that part of my Executive Dysfunction problem isn’t Executive Dysfunction at all but a kind of irrational guilt about being disabled? I still can’t accept how little I can do.

Additional note.

I wrote the first part of this several days ago but didn’t post it because I wanted to space out my posts and I’d written a lot. Today I sat down to edit it and finally post it on a day where I procrastinated leaving the house for so long that I didn’t actually get out and thus didn’t pick up my medication from the local pharmacy. Today I am not ticking things off the to do list. Today I am having trouble staying awake.

Maybe this is just the normal variations in life, amplified by my chronic ill health? All I know is that today it feels like every thought is wading through treacle to get to the front of my mind and maybe I shouldn’t expect too much of myself under the circumstances.

Sunday Update 10/02

This week has been weirdly disjointed and ill-omened.

In the middle of the week I slashed two of my fingers open with a bread knife. Not deliberately or anything, just the cost of buying unsliced bread when you’re a Spoonie. My hands shake and spasm without warning, sometimes I’m not fully aware of what I’m doing and I’m often horribly distracted. Trying to get stuff done with two fingers strapped up is a reminder of all the ways in which I am dependant on my hands even though they’re not very reliable. It set the tone for the week.

I’ve written a lot but I feel like somehow none of it counts. I’ve signed an actual contract to do actual paid writing but I’m still half expecting that i’ll fuck it up somehow. There’s no reason why I should mess it up. I’ve got months to finish, I’ve already done more than half the research and it’s related to subjects that I’ve previously written about. I should be able to do it in my sleep. It just that I’m used to things never working out the way that they should.

Slashing my fingers meant that I’ve had to change up the ways that I’ve spent my time this week. I couldn’t play computer games and typing was difficult. I ended up spending time looking for new things to watch on Amazon Prime while crocheting very slowly. I discovered a thing that I’ve already blogged about.

I’ve also spent the week wrestling with the realisation that my Executive Dysfunction isn’t as bad as i think it is and that half of the problem is me not acknowledging the things that I do manage to get done even when I’m constantly fighting the desire to just stay in bed for ever. I’ve written a blog about that too and I’ll probably go up next week.

And then there was the Scapegoat blog. It’s been one of those weird things where I wrote something that seemed grimly entertaining to me but clearly seems horribly traumatic to everyone who’s spoken to me about it. I want to say, “Hey lighten up. It wasn’t serious. Nobody died, nobody got injured, it’s not like it was child abuse or anything.” but I’m worried that if I say that out loud someone will tell me that it actually was and that’s going to make talking to my mother really awkward.

If you want to donate so I can buy better plasters, or just pay for the coffee that keeps me awake and watching Boris Karloff, you can do it via my Kofi link.

Boris Karloff and the Department of Queer Complaints

I love Netflix but I sometimes think it lacks depth. Where are all the classic TV shows and terrible old movies? Amazon Prime video has a better better selection but stuff is harder to find. If you find something interesting be sure to let me know in the comments but for now allow me to make a recommendation.

The other night I stumbled over something called Colonel March of Scotland Yard, starring Boris Karloff. It’s a TV series from 1954. The already 67 year old Boris Karloff looks dashing with an eye patch and 5 episodes in I still don’t know if the titular character is meant to be a police officer and if so what rank he bears (Colonel is not a rank in any British police force). He claims to be the “Department of Queer Complaints” and I can’t tell if that’s his actual department, or a joke that he shares with his colleagues about being a trouble magnet, or if it’s a nickname for the department he really runs.

The show is pretty wild. In the first five episodes we’ve seen a man murdered with a hat pin, telepathy as evidence, a very young Christopher Lee as a French fashion designer, a jaunt to France and a Yeti stalking the rooftops of London. In some ways it’s also very staid. Television was in its infancy and the cameras couldn’t move much. It has a very stagy look and many of the performances are stiff and artificial by modern standards.

The plots aren’t great. The episodes are too short for the kind of mystery they’re trying to show so they end up being full of plot holes. The villains have a distressing habit of monologuing their vicious plans right into the camera. In just five episodes we’ve already had two examples of Colonel March stumbling over a mystery while going about his private business. That is a worrying trend. It could push the show into Murder, She Wrote territory but we shall have to see.

It is very much of it’s time. In those first five episodes there’s, yellow face, orientalism, sexism, and some of the Colonel’s interactions with women are clearly meant to represent a sweet old man with an eye for the fillies but to modern eyes just look creepy and exploitative. Looking ahead at the episode descriptions I foresee a lot more racism. All I can say in its defence is that so far it seems no more racist than the average television programme of the time but that’s not much of a defence.

If you’re a fan of weird mysteries, early television or Boris Karloff then you might still decide that it’s worth a watch. If you don’t have Prime Video then I’ve found an episode on youTube. I can’t vouch for its quality but here it is.

Sunday Update 03/02

This week I have been mainly dealing with Executive Dysfunction. It’s a thing I’ve mentioned before, somewhere, but I can’t be arsed finding the previous blog posts. Or maybe that’s the Executive Dysfunction talking.

This is a disorder where you want to do a thing and you’re capable of doing the thing and you’ve decided to do the thing but you don’t actually do the thing because the part of your brain that does the deciding (the Executive) can’t properly communicate with the rest of your brain. Humans tend to assume that we have unfettered free will, so we often think it’s procrastination or laziness. We think that the reason we’re not doing the thing is because we’ve decided not to do the thing, even if that’s clearly not true.

Executive Dysfunction is commonly found in people with ADHD, particularly adults who were undiagnosed as children. It’s also found in people with Depression or on the Autism Spectrum. It leads to this horrible feeling of unworthiness. This sense that you’re fundamentally unreliable which itself leads to a fear of committing to anything because you’re so scared that you’re going to let people down.

You might be thinking that my Executive Dysfunction can’t be all that bad because here I am writing a blog post. Well… I’ve got two emails that need replies that I somehow haven’t written even though I’ve had two days. My travel coffee mug got broken and I should be looking online for a replacement but I’m not. I should be working on my spy novel but I’m not. I have a bunch of finished crochet that I need to parcel up to send to people and it’s a month late. I have a pair of crochet mittens that just need to be sewn up to finish and they’ve been sitting around for two months. If I turn my head slightly I can see a bunch of cardboard boxes that should have gone out to the paper recycling bin weeks ago.

Of course part of the problem for me is that, because I have a chronic pain condition, I have an invisible extra step between deciding to do the thing and actually starting to do the thing. The act of will required to disregard how much additional pain doing the thing might cause. It’s a lot harder to just get up and take the cardboard out to the bin if you know that there’s a significant chance that getting up will feel like you’ve been stabbed.

It’s kind of amazing that I ever get anything done at all. Or maybe it’s just amazing that I am somehow still going in spite of being such a disaster.

Sunday Update 27/01

This week my main challenge has been trying to get back into the habit of writing. It feels like I’ve forgotten how to write regularly if I don’t have a deadline of some kind hanging over me. Did I ever know how to do that? Have I always relied on an external pressure to keep me writing?

It’s not that i’ve been avoiding writing. I’ve written a couple of blog posts, done a short writing course on skillshare, discovered the Story Grid system for editing, started a skillshare course on essay writing run by the glorious Roxane Gay and spent a lot of time looking at my writing planner. But that’s all writing adjacent activity and not the writing I actually want to be working on.

I’ve also been ill. I’m fighting off an infection, taking antibiotics, and dealing with a rash on my left hand that’s affecting my ability to type. I can’t tell if the rash is contact dermatitis, or an allergic reaction, or something else. I hope it’s not shingles. At least I know it’s not caused by the antibiotics because it predates the first dose. I’ve also been struggling with spasms in my arms that not only affect my typing but also my ability to crochet. It’s as if my own body is trying to keep me from doing anything useful.

I have written a bit this week. I have continued to make things in the face of my own body’s attempt to stop me. I’m just dissatisfied by how little I’ve done. I want more. I want to be productive. Why am I stuck with this recalcitrant body and semi-functional brain? It feels like I’m wasting my life because I get so little done. I know I could make great things if I could just do stuff. It’s so frustrating sitting around waiting to be able to do… just… anything.

It’s hard to communicate how angry I am that my life is like this. My creativity is constantly hamstrung by my frailties and every attempt to overcome these frailties backfires and makes things worse. The more I push myself the sicker I get.

I have a duty to all these characters that I have swimming round in my head. When I die I’ll take them with me unless I can get them out of my head and onto a page. But I also owe it to them to do a good job so I have to keep going back and making what I’ve already written better. It all takes so much time.

Real breasts

Today I come amongst you* to talk about boobs. All you boys sniggering at the back may want to leave now because I’m not here to talk about real versus surgically enhanced.** I’m talking about the reality of having breasts rather the fantasy where we sit round all day feeling them in front of a mirror. This may not be a fun chat for those of you who want to hold onto your mammary fantasies.

For the last three days I’ve had a painful, lumpy swollen boob. I finally got an appointment to see someone about it today and now I have antibiotics. That’s because I apparently have an infection and not, for example, cancer. This means my boob probably isn’t going to kill me (in the near future at least).

People who don’t have boobs might think that worrying about mine killing me is an over reaction to a lump. No.

My Grandmother survived a radical mastectomy back when the treatment options for breast cancer were losing your entire boob, plus the lymph nodes from your armpit, plus some of the muscle from the top of your arm or a slow and painful death. Her left hand shook for the rest of her life but she lived into her 80s with no recurrence.

My aunt had an operation that was a little more surgery and a little less butchery. For a while it looked like she’d beaten it too but the cancer got her in the end.

My Mother and my other maternal aunt are fine. There’s a good chance that if there is a breast cancer gene in the family neither of them inherited it. If that’s the case then they can’t have passed it on to my cousin or I. So our chances of developing breast cancer drop all the way to 1 in 8.

I have somewhat ambivalent feelings about boobs. On the one hand they are great, on the other they might kill you. They look fantastic but they’re also kind of a pain in the neck, literally if they’re on the larger side. Mine are fun to hold and look ok and have breastfed two kids but they are costing me a fortune in bras (see this post for part of the reason why).

Breasts are these visible signifiers of gender that women are stuck with. They hang out in front of us like a massive sign that says “This person is female. Feel free to talk over her, ignore her expertise and pay her less.” They’re simultaneously public and private. Everybody gets to have an opinion about them but we’re supposed to care a lot about who gets to see them even when we’re busy trying to stick bits of them in a baby’s mouth.

And they do, occasionally, try to kill you. Even if they’re not very big. Even if you’re not a woman. Even if you’re a woman now but you were assigned male at birth.

Everyone is born with mammary glands. It’s female hormones that make them grow into breasts. Anyone who still has mammary tissue is at risk from breast cancer. Yes that does include men. Even the flattest chested, most masculine, cis dude can be stricken.

Check your chesticles for lumps, people. If you find one get it looked at. Breast cancer should never be fatal because none of us needs tits to live. If caught early enough it should be possible to remove all the cancerous tissue. But that means actually doing something about the symptoms. Also keep an eye out for dents, changes to your nipples, discharge or anything else weird.

And try to remember as you go about your day that breasts are just mammary glands, fat and optional artificial enhancements. They don’t contain any morals, or mystical femininity, or inferiority, or l33t domestic skills. A person’s value is in no way linked to the size, shape, or construction of their tidies.

 

*Pun absolutely intended.

**Actually, don’t go, I have a message for you at the end.

Sucking at something.

“Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

Jake the dog from Adventure Time

I’ve been playing a lot of Destiny 2 recently. It’s fun. I enjoy the world and the gameplay and it’s very pretty. But it can be frustrating. The game wants you to play all of the game. Even the bits you don’t like. Even the bits that you’re terrible at. It can’t force you to do that. But it can hold out the promise of something you want.

Below are light spoilers for Destiny 2, mostly the Forsaken DLC

The recent Forsaken expansion starts with a beloved character getting shot in the face with his own gun. There follows an epic quest to avenge his death and defeat the people responsible for it. That culminates in you, the player character, taking the gun from the man who killed him.

Then you’re stuck with this gun that’s been badly damaged and no longer works. In order to repair it you get sent on another quest. That involves shooting a lot of things under a lot of different circumstances with guns of the same type – hand cannons. That’s not a type of gun I’d used much before and it doesn’t suit my natural play style but I powered through relying on my other skills.

Then I got to the final challenge. 25 precision finishing blows in the Crucible. Which won’t make any sense to you unless you play the game so late me break it down for you. A precision shot is when you hit a weak spot, which differs from enemy to enemy. A finishing blow is the blow that kills an enemy. The Crucible is PVP- player versus player. The only weak spot on other players is the head, but they wear helmets and a headshot isn’t an automatic kill with a hand canon. Other players are sneaky. They use cover. They move unpredictably. They’re the hardest things to hit in the game. Which is why I didn’t play the Crucible much.

By the time I found out that this was the final step I’d already invested a lot of time and effort in fixing the gun. If I don’t get those 25 headshots then all that work would have been wasted. So I tried. And I sucked at it. I sucked hard. I didn’t know how to play the game like that. But I persisted. Because sucking at something is the first step.

I kept playing. Over time I sucked a little less. Eventually I failed my way to completion, did the final mission and repaired the gun. And then I understood. The gun is worthless unless you know how to use it and that takes practice. The quest to repair the gun taught me the skills I needed to use the gun and gave me a taste for the crucible. The damn game forced me to learn to like a part of the game that I’d been avoiding.

Sunday Update 20/01

This week I have spent a lot of time with planners and diaries, trying to organise myself.

I do not organise well. It does not come naturally to me. Partly because I find it hard to keep my mind pointed in any one direction for any length of time and partly because planning is pointless if you don’t have the resources to follow it through. But then everything I do is pointless so I might as well add planning to the list.

I’ve also spent a lot of time this week on Project Kindness, the spies vs gods novel that I’ve been working on. I realised that I had to go back and rewrite a couple of earlier scenes to make the point of view more consistent. When I’ve fixed those scenes I’ll be able to get back to finishing part six of the third draft.

I’ve been playing a lot of Destiny 2 on the PS4 and I think I have some thoughts about it that I want to blog about. Hopefully I’ll manage to do that this week.

Health-wise this week has sucked. I keep getting hit with incredible tiredness that seems to come out of nowhere and requires me to lie down and maybe go to sleep. When it hits I can’t keep my eyes open. I can’t tell if this is just the latest Fibromyalgia bullshit or if it means I’ve picked up some new health problem.

In fact I had to stop typing after that paragraph and go and lie down because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Then I had to call my spouse to help me get my bra off because my triceps just weren’t working. I’ve noticed problems with my upper arms recently and I’ve been trying to stave it off with exercise. But there’s a limit to what I can do. I don’t have the energy to exercise much and if I push myself too much my arms will be useless for the rest of the day.

I wasn’t even trapped in a regular bra. I’ve mostly given up on those because I can’t reliably fasten them without help. The bra that tried to strangle me was a pull over the head sports bra. I’ve spent a lot of money on those as replacements for the already expensive bras that I couldn’t get on.

I now have a drawer full of expensive bras that I either can’t get fastened or can’t get off. I do not want to give up on bras, and nobody wants to see me out in public without one, but I’m not sure I can afford any more. If any of my spoonie sistren are out there and you have any tips on bras that are easy to get into and out of and will fit my mighty 44H chest please let me know.

The other thing I’ve been doing this week is research into self publishing, I’ve taken a few tiny steps in that direction. I still don’t know if it’s a path I want to follow but at least I now have a slightly better idea about what that path looks like.

So once again I have spent a week doing… stuff but I don’t actually have much to show for it.

Narrative blues

I’m still deep in the rewrites of Project Kindness, the sexy spies and celtic gods novel, and I am pissed off with modern narrative conventions. In theory there are many options for the narrative point of view but if you pick the wrong one you risk any prospective agent assuming that you’re a rank ammateur.

I assume that most of my readers know what first, second and third person are and are aware of the different types of each but not everyone does. Also I don’t have an English Literature degree and it’s been a long time since I passed my higher so I’m almost certainly using some of the terminology wrongly. Therefore I’m going to start with an explanation of the terms I’m going to be using. Feel free to skip ahead if this stuff bores you.

First person

“I did, I saw, I felt.” The Narrator is a character in the story. They might be the main character (Hunger Games), or they might be chronicling the deeds of a friend, (Sherlock Holmes) or they might be documenting events that they lived through (War of the Worlds).

With some narrators the reader feels like they’re inside the narrator’s head experiencing things as they happen like in the Hunger Games books. Stories like these are sometimes written in the present tense and they tend to feel very immediate. The foreshadowing happens in events and dialogue or in the mind of the narrator, there’s never any of that “If only I’d known then what I knew later” stuff.

Some stories have the feel of the narrator having experienced events and then gone away and written about them later. All of the first person Sherlock Holmes stories feel like this. These stories can have a kind of meta narrative going on because the narrator already knows how the story is going to turn out. The Final Problem, the story in which Sherlock Holmes goes over the Reichenbach Falls, is shot through with Watson’s grief and anger.

Some stories feel more like they’re being told to you by the narrator either during or immediately after the events. It feels like you’re down the pub with them and they’re full of this thing that just happened and telling you all about it with accompanying hand gestures and funny voices. Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books feel like this, particularly if you listen to the audio books.

Second Person

“You did, you saw, you felt.” Mostly used in choose your own adventure books or in short stories. I’m sure there must be some successful Second Person novels out there but I wouldn’t have the first idea how to write one. I believe there’s a fair bit of sexy, second person, fanfic out there where the reader is a character in the stories. Taking the self insert character to its logical conclusion.

Third Person.

“He/she/they did, saw, felt.” I think this is the most diverse narration and there’s multiple kinds of Third person with actual names that writers are expected to know.

Third person omniscient – the Narrator is God, or at least godlike. The narrator knows all and sees all and they get to decide what the reader gets to know. If the narrator dispassionately describes what everyone in a scene is thinking as well as what they’re doing then it’s third person omniscient.

Third person objective – the narrator is a person reporting on the narrative from the outside. They’ve done research, spoken to the survivors, read the clippings, and if possible visited the scene and they’re telling you what they found out. Very popular for true crime and faux true crime stories. Also used by CS Lewis in some of the Narnia Chronicles, particularly The Magician’s Nephew.

Third person limited – the narrative follows a single person’s point of view, everything is seen through the lense of their experiences, but since that person is not actually narrating we don’t get to know exactly what they’re thinking. It’s as if the camera of the novel was following that person and only that person.

Third person variable – very like third person limited but the narrative isn’t always following the same person. Usually the point of view switch happens at very clearly delineated points such as with a new chapter or at the very least a new scene.

Third person multiple – like variable but the point of view switch happens inside scenes. Easy to screw up, hard to get right. When done badly it tends to read like a failed attempt at third person omniscient. Either that or as ‘head hopping’, which just confuses the reader about who’s doing what and to whom.

The Blues

So much choice. Surely there’s a narrative option to fit any story? Yes and no. If you’re writing a novel and you’re not already a respected professional and you’re planning on submitting it to an agent then you might have to stick most of those options straight in the bin.

Third person omniscient, for example, used to be super popular. A lot of literary classics were written that way – Jane Austen was fond of it for one. In recent years it’s fallen foul of the oft repeated advice to show, not tell. It’s the same with third person objective. You can’t get away from the fact that that someone is telling a story and for a busy agent that might lead straight to the rejection pile.

‘Head hopping’ is a complete no-no so it’s best to avoid third person multiple. That also means you have to be careful with third person variable. If you don’t make it clear enough that the point of view has switched then a hurried reader isn’t going to look back up the page to check. That way leads straight to a form rejection email.

I want it to be clear that I’m not criticising agents. I don’t even know for sure that they do react that way. I just know that it doesn’t feel worth the risk. It’s not enough to avoid amateurish mistakes. You also have to avoid stuff that might look to the hurried glance like an amateurish mistake. With so many other writers clamouring for attention why would they spare the time for a second glance?

There’s a part of me that thinks that the real problem is quality. I just need to ‘git gud’ and then I can write things how I want to write them. There’s another part of me that disagrees with that. That part thinks the problem is time. From the moment a reader starts reading there’s a timer counting down to the point at which they lose interest. I your story doesn’t grab them somewhere tender before that timer runs out then you’ve lost them.

The author name on the front of the book affects the starting time on that timer. My name isn’t Neil Gaiman, or Sir Terry Pratchett, or JK Rowling. I don’t have much time to prove that my story, my writing and my characters are worth sticking around for. Part of that is demonstrating that I’m a professional. And that means that sometimes I have to choose to rewrite a scene so that it’s not as good but does more closely conform to the current narrative conventions.