Writing Advice – Craft & Process

Collecting the posts I’ve written about the craft and process of writing

Tips for Getting Analogue With Your Writing

Hobbit Notebook Page 200If you take a quick gander at my Instagram feed, it should be pretty obvious that I am now an unapologetic notebook guy these days. A good 90% of my posts are basically me doing the pictorial equivalent of posting word-counts in a blog – tracking progress through a project by photographing page numbers.

I do it there because, quite honestly, I have a pretty minimal number of Instagram followers and it’s less likely to piss people off, but also because I’ve come to appreciate the value of focusing on my process, rather than my goals.

Occasionally I feel bad about doing this, but over the last week I’ve talked to a handful of people who have been inspired to the rock the analogue approach to their writing. And, since this wasn’t exactly a natural progression for me, I figured I’d put down a little advice.

First, some background: I spent about fifteen years failing to write in notebooks prior to last year. I liked the idea of it. I could see the sense in working away from the computer. And, every year, there would be a sporadic attempt: I’d buy six packs of Spirax notebooks or legal pads, do about a dozen pages of notes or story drafts, then abandon them for the keyboard within the space of a week.

I’m faster on a keyboard, I’d tell myself. I’m just not wired for handwriting. 

When I decided to handwrite a novel draft last year, it was largely out of desperation. GenreCon was looming. I’d hit a point where I needed to draw a line between my writing and my duties as the guy who got a conference running, and that was getting impossible to do when I worked on a computer.

I was surprised to discover how effective it was. Even more surprised when I made the decision to go back to typing first drafts, after the con, and discovered that I had completely broken my process. I spent much of December and January struggling to get things done at the keyboard, right up until I broke out a new notebook and went analogue once more. After that, boom. Approximately half a novel inside of forty days.

What made this attempt work after all the previous failures? Research. I looked up the work habits of writers who were routinely working longhand and paid attention to the things that did and didn’t work for them. Trialed a whoe bunch of processes and kept the ones that worked for me.

None of which implies that you should be handwriting all your work – my process is not your process – but if you’re inclined to try, this is the stuff that really worked for me.

ONE: INVEST IN BETTER QUALITY WRITING TOOLS THAN YOU NEED

It’s hard to say this without feeling like an incredible wanker, but one of the biggest differences between my recent attempt to go analogue and my previous attempts was really paying attention to the tools.

Using dedicated notebooks instead of exercise books was a big starting point, particularly since the hard-backed style books by J Burrows and Moleskin that I’ve been using essentially give you mobile writing surface built right into the notebook. That freed me up to work anywhere, with relative ease, and really cut back on the amount of stuff I’m carting around to write clubs.

The notebook made a difference, but the bigger difference was paying attention to the pen.

Holy shit, do pens matter.

Ballpoint pens conquered the world because they were cheap and easy to produce, but they are a complete arse to write with in large quantities. The ink used in them doesn’t flow as freely as it does in old-school fountain pens, which means you have to press down harder to get the ink flowing across the page. If you’re writing twenty or so pages ever day, having to press down matters more than you’d think. For me, that difference manifested in the form of shoulder pain if I spent too long scribbling.

That hasn’t happened in about a year, despite me writing far more than I used too.

Invest in a good pen. It doesn’t need to be a fountain pen – I still look at them and wonder if I’m that far gone yet, and I’m not – , but do go for one of the new-school options like a gel-ink pen or a rollerball that flow a little easier across the page. I spent about four straight months working with PaperMate Grip Rollerballs, which I originally picked up to do the signing sheets for the Flotsam hardbacks in an acid-free ink.

I goddamn loved those pens . They were an absolute pleasure to write with, just thick enough to be comfortable with a smooth-flowing ink that would, admittedly, bleed into the notebook if I pressed too hard. I would have stuck with it, but for the inability to reliably tell when it was running short of ink, which meant there are pages where my writing got…scratchy.

Now, I’ve converted to the Pentel Energel after getting nerdy about handwriting while talking to Anna Campbell about her process. It bleeds on the page less than the Papermate, and has the added advantage of a window where I can see how much ink is remaining in the pen. Just as easy to write with, but the perks are considerable.

TWO: ALTERNATE INK COLOUR EVERY DAY

Google Neil Gaiman and longhand writing and this advice should come up, repeated all across the internet. Basically, grab two different coloured pens and alternate which one you use every day. This allows you to quickly see where one days work ends and the next begins, especially when you’re two hundred pages into a project and flipping through the work that’s come before.

This was originally important to me because I was tracking writing data for the tail end of the 600K writing challenge I took in 2015. These days, it’s important to me because I’ve realized one of the secret satisfactions of writing longhand: it actually feels like you’ve done something, at the end of the day.

Adding a thousand words to a computer file has an air of satisfaction about it, because you know you’re making progress. It’s right there in the word count, growing steadily upwards.

But when you’re writing in a notebook you are always aware of your progress. Every time you open the book up, you’re visibly further along. Because I’d never done more than twenty pages or so, I had no sense of how brilliant this was until my most recent drafts. I’m going to run out of space in my first notebook sometime this week, and I find myself doing a little bit extra every writing session just to get there faster.

THREE: PAGE NUMBERS, INDEXING, AND THREADING

I number the pages of my journals before I write in them. Pretty much every writer I researched did some variation of this, but I’d never even considered it before I encountered the idea while researching the Bullet Journal towards the middle of last year.

And page numbers are useful, but what really made it possible for me to stick with notebooks long-term was the concept of indexing and threading mentioned in the bullet journal archives.

The inside cover of each notebook contains a list of all the contents, with the corresponding page numbers. This allows me to quickly find a particular chapter, or the notes about the overall structure I made halfway through the notebook, or a short story that has one scene written on page 12-15, and the next on page 20-22.

Threading is a similar concept – basically, at the bottom of page fifteen in the example above, I’d put a little 20 and an arrow pointing forward. On page twenty, I’d add a fifteen and an arrow pointing back. Quick and easy ways of going from story section to story section, without having to search and remember when and where the other parts were written.

Being able to work on more than one story at a time is a big part of my process, and was frequently a fail-point for me and notebooks. I’d frequently end up carrying around a small mountain of books, just to cover all the things I was working on, which isn’t really practical.

FOUR: EMBRACE WHAT YOU’RE GAINING, FORGET WHAT YOU’RE LOSING

Let’s be clear: I can burn through a novel draft much faster in a notebook than I can on a computer.

My per-word output on a keyboard is better, but I’m prone to getting distracted by other things and I will frequently get slowed down by my own typos. Hell, I’ve habitually corrected three or four things just in the process of typing this paragraph, with at least one sentence that got rewritten on the fly. I’m aware that I’m doing it, but only on a barely conscious level where I habitually swear at myself for being a clumsy idiot and intellectually hit backspace.

This is the advantage of working on a computer, but it’s also a curse.

Do you know how many typos there are in my handwritten manuscripts? None. Everything that’s on the page is pretty much what I was thinking. I gain a lot of time by not having the ability to go back and do a quick edit of something that’s not-quite-right. I have no choice but to move forward, no matter what. If I want to junk something, I have to junk whole paragraphs, whole pages, and there are rarely points where that’s worth it to make the kinds of fixes that are habitually on a computer.

This speeds you up more than you’d think.

On the other hand, I get to the end of the manuscript and I have four hundred and eighty handwritten pages full of things that are not quite right. The typos aren’t there, but I’ve also lost the ability to quickly duck back and make a quick correction. Those I have made were usually urgent, but there are significantly more sloppy sentences and poorly conceived scenes than I’m used too in a draft.

So the upside is that I can actually finish a novel draft in about two months. The downside is that I need a much more stringent editorial process to get it into readable form.

And, as I’ve discovered recently, I don’t have a stringent editorial process. I’m used to living inside drafts until they’re done, shaping and reshaping as I go. This is one of the reasons why I spent so much tie working on short stories and novellas, ’cause that process is utterly balls for writing novels. I got bogged down in scenes that didn’t work, blind to the larger picture and unable to keep up forward momentum.

FIVE: HAVE A WRITING BUDGET

When I started out, I expected a 240 page notebook to last me a couple of months. Turns out, I will go through one in a period of about 40 days. I go through at least one blue pen and one black pen every week, more if I’m using them at work. The pens I use aren’t exorbitantly priced, but they cost six or seven bucks for a four-pack. My preferred notebooks set me back about fifteen bucks.

At the pace I’m writing and going through things, all this adds up quickly. It adds up really quickly if you’re used to working on a computer and quietly printing your manuscripts on the work printer at your dayjob.

It adds up even quicker if, like me, it suddenly occurs to you that you can write anywhere you want now that you’re not connected to the keyboard.

When I figured this was my default mode of drafting from now on, I immediately started setting aside budget and spending quality time in stationary supply stores, waiting for things to come on sale.

SIX: EMBRACE YOUR PROCESS; EMBRACE THE RITUAL

There is something about writing in a notebook that will make you feel like a hipster wanker, unwilling to engage with the modern world and preparing to grow an epic beard. There is no escaping that. There is also no escaping the fact that other people will comment on your new analogue process.

But the nice thing about a notebook is the way it lends itself to writing rituals, which are more important to developing habits than you’d think. I did a lot of reading about habits and processes over the course of 2015, and I became very conscious of the notion of triggers and reward that Charles Duhigg talks about in the appendix of his book, The Power of Habit.

Computers get used for so much, these days, that it’s easy to slip into a habit other than writing simply by doing something slightly differently when you sit down and boot up. Notebooks don’t give you that option, which is part of their strength. Every time you open a notebook, you are sitting down to write.

What I find really useful about notebooks is the way they make it easier to keep motivated with regard to writing. I’ve always been very goal-oriented with writing, rather than focusing on process, and it turns out that may be the wrong way to go. Goals are great for getting you to an activity, but will detract from your motivation over time.

What helps keep us engaged with an activity long-term is a focus on the process. It’s why – much as people complain about things like word-counting posts and the #AmWriting hashtag on twitter, they can actually be remarkably useful in terms of getting to the end of a big writing project.

My process with notebooks is replete with little rituals designed to keep me engaged with the process. Instagram photos of the work in progress is one of those, but little things like going back and circling the page numbers after I finish a block of four pages, recording the time I start and finish a micro-stint of writing, and quietly riffling through the pages whenever I’m pondering the next scene are also there.

I’m a heavily tactile person, in general, so having something to hold and play with as I work is incredibly soothing for me. For the first time in years, I am not anxious about writing. I don’t fret about whether I’m doing enough, or the quality of what I’m doing. I’m just enjoying the whole process, and looking forward to the next time I get to sit down and write.

Which is not to say that I don’t have bad writing days, or even whole days where I get nothing productive done. But there are fewer than there used to be, and the periods where I’ll disappear down a rabbit hole to binge on Netflix or pay computers games are much shorter. Things that used to be my kryptonite have become relatively inert.

Rituals matter, in this context. And notebooks lend themselves to rituals like you wouldn’t believe.

This, at it’s core, is one of the secret strengths of going analogue, so I figure you may as well embrace it.

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Well, those are my tips on the analogue front. One thing I have discovered since doing this is the number of other writer who get enormously geeky about their own analogue processes, which is part of the pleasure as well. If you’ve got any recommendations for tools or processes, let me know in the comments.

I’m always happy to try and fine-tune my processes a little more.

Avocado, Toast, and What They Make Me Think About Writing

I had breakfast at my local cafe this morning. It’s a habit I’m cultivating this year, on Write Club days, after realising that breakfast at my local cafe makes me extraordinarily happy and it becomes affordable within my budget if I stop buying Coke Zero.

Giving up Coke Zero for something that makes me extraordinary happy is an easy trade, and so, twice a week, I trot down to the Low Road Cafe and order their avocado on toast for breakfast.

There are two things I love about the Low Road’s avocado breakfast.

The first is that it’s a production. It’s thick slices of doorstop toast, avocado, three different types of nuts, little slices of radish and radish flowers. Lemon juice. Freshly chopped herbs laid over the whole thing like a winter blanket. The kind of food put together by a chef who isn’t regarding their vegetarian menu as an afterthought, and enjoys the process of making tasty things.

Avocado on toast is usually one of those meals that cafes do well, ’cause it’s easy, but Low Road elevates it to the point of elegance. They catch you by surprise by defying your expectations.

The second thing that I love: it’s always different and it’s always delicious. The 20th century worked towards a theory of homogeneity, in some respects. Fast-food chains proliferated by offering the same experience, wherever you were, and the same expectation. The food may not be good, but it offered the comfort of the familiar and that eliminated the risk of trying something new.

If you were travelling and didn’t know there area – where to get a good meal or cup of coffee – you could head into your local McDonalds and get something you knew.

At Low Road, the avocado on toast is always subtly different. There’s nothing uniform about the toast that they’re using – it’s always different bread, different flavours. The same goes for the nuts, and the herbs scattered over the top. Today’s breakfast leant into the flavours of the lemon juice and the the peppery taste of the radish slices, whereas my last breakfast there was nuttier and had a slightly stronger avocado presence.

They’re not afraid of sending out something that looks different to the last time you ordered it. It’s always familiar enough for you to recognise it and tastes phenomenal, but they’re certainly not afraid to give you something that tastes different, either.

Those slight differences – that expectation of quality with a consistent expectation about flavour – is what keeps me ordering this breakfast again and again when I head to the cafe. It’s the perfect blend of the familiar and the unexpected.

Naturally, all this makes me think of writing. Because everything makes me think of writing.

Often, when I’m talking to new writers who want to get their first book published, I will ask a simple question: what’s your genre? The answer will generally offer a good indication of how much help people will need.

Folks who have thought about their genre will have a good answer. Fantasy. Crime. General Fiction. Romance. Those who have put a lot of thought in their genre will go for specific – Steampunk! Hardboiled! Regency! – or will at least be able to offer touchstones in the form of similar authors.

The folks who stumble over that question – or worse, break out I don’t know; I don’t think there’s anything else out there like this – are frequently much, much harder to help out. Often their expectations are much higher, and their work needs more development, because they’ve bought into a whole bunch of rhetoric about muses and creative inspiration.

They believe that their idea, rather than the execution of it, is what will get them published.

But the number of people who pick up a book thinking I seriously hope this is like nothing I’ve ever read before is extraordinarily small. Most of us enjoy stories that are linked by a number of traits, whether it’s a particular voice, or set of genre tropes, or familiar character archetypes.

And within that familiarity you have to do two things.

First, make the familiar great and surprise your new reader. Taking something familiar and breathing new life into it by adding unexpected elements, or turning it into something new, is a tried-and-true way of engaging readers.

Second, keep delivering something that’s familiar, but subtly different and always bloody tasty. The familiar and the unexpected coming together, to create surprise and delight.

Pens: Mightier than the Sword, Prone to Running Out Much Faster

I went back to writing first drafts on the computer, then came back to notebooks after Christmas. The computer didn’t work for me the way it once did. It’s become the place for editing work, for doing the day-to-day stuff. It divides focus in a way that the notebooks don’t.

My natural inclination is to write in short bursts: four minutes, then a pause. Five minutes, then a pause. On a computer there are more words in each burst, but longer pauses. On a notebook, I’ll frequently stop to contemplate the next step, and I’ll be back at work within a minute.

I can write faster and harder on a computer, but I’ll get two or three bursts into a one-hour block. I can write for longer, on a notebook. The stops are shorter, my brain less prone to wondering. This is the effect of tracking different data, getting things more fine-tuned.

Though I burn through pens like nobodies business. The graveyard of dead pens, stacking up on my coffee table, is starting to look slightly ominous.

And the process of editing/rewriting the finished drafts is evil, given my previous habits.

The Dead Pen Graveyard

To Sleep, Perchance to Stay the Fuck Asleep

I’ve been waking in the middle of the night again. Three nights in a row now, for reasons I cannot adequately explain, although the safe bet is that it’s either related to the apnea, or related to the treatment that keeps the apnea under control.

This is coupled with a tendency to wake ahead of my alarm. Not unusual, for me, but what used to be a habit of getting up fifteen minutes earlier is gradually becoming forty minutes to an hour. I wake up lethargic and irritable, like you do when something rips you out of the deepest parts of sleep, and it takes me a good half-day to shake of the effects of that.

In short, it’s the worst run of sleep that I’ve had for a while. A worrying one, given that the tendency to wake in the night was one of the earliest warning signs of apnea, way back when I first started to notice things were going wrong.

One of the things I’ve learned from dealing with the apnea over the last six months: when things go wrong, look to the ruptures in your habits.

It seems simple on the surface, but small changes or lapses in my habits tend to have big effects on my sleep quality. Get lazy with my diet and put on a few kilos? I’m going to pay for that. Change my regular bed time by twenty minutes? I’ll pay for that, too.

Eat certain foods I know better than to eat? Leave cleaning my CPAP gear an extra day or two? Store my gear in a slightly different way? They all impact on my sleep and my ability to function the next day.

Being aware of that makes it easy to tackle a problem, once it becomes clear there’s something going wrong. I run through the things I’m doing differently, alter those habits and see if things clear up.

As in sleep, so it is with writing.

I’ve been tracking time-spent-writing and word-count achieved for a bout a month now, courtesy of some manual processes and the use of tools like RescueTime, and it’s amazing how often what I used to call a bad writing day can now be tracked back to a change in habits.

Turns out, I’m remarkably consistent in terms of word-count: a handwritten page takes me between seven and nine minutes to write, often split into two short bursts. Factor in the gaps where I figure out what comes next, or check Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr, and I average about four or five pages an hour.

When I have a day where I’ve written less than that, it’s usually a sign that I’ve gotten distracted in one of those gaps and not come back to the story. When I have a bad writing day I used to beat myself up, but now I look at stats and figure out where I’ve leaked time like a sieve.

It all comes down to habits and gaps. The gulf between between what I want to be like and what I’m actually doing.

Everything Will Be All Right Once We Get to Tir Asleen

I’m not a consistent writer. Not in terms of my work habits, not in terms of my approach, and not in terms of the genres that I’m interested in or my long-term goals. There is something inherently mercurial about my approach to all this, despite my best efforts to try and constrain my natural tendency to rapidly change my mind about things in response to external stimuli.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure how to get the hell out of my own way. The days where I’m successful are roughly equal to the days where I fail.

I am distractable, and fallible, and often lazier than I feel comfortable with. Frequently, when I post here, I’m engaging in a pep-talk that I need to hear above all else.

Right now, that pep talk is this: for the love of god, slow down. Pay attention to what you’re doing now, not what you want in give years time.

Partially this is a response to the looming reality of the new year. People start posting end of year reviews. People start posting about new year resolutions. Everyone is abuzz with fresh plans and shiny new ambitions and it’s tempting to start building your own alongside that.

I like goals. They’re always tomorrow’s problem, something I can adapt to and evolve my way towards. They’re like a little tiny adrenaline shot of ambition that keeps me buzzing for…well, two or three weeks, on a good day.

My goals are usually moderately insane and ambitious as hell, and they’re probably about as useful as a heroin habit. Goals open up the possibility of failure and, as I fall behind on my expectations, give me a mental out when it comes to abandoning them. Oh well, I’m not going to come close, so it won’t hurt to fall even further behind…

Goals shape expectations in weird ways. It puts all the benefits way, way off in the future. It’s why writers – even me, from time to time – get tangled up in the disappointments that things will not work out, long-term, and slip into occasional despair. Goals are often come up with as a solution to problems, and all too often they aren’t. It happens so often that I find myself repeating a single from Willow, inside my head:

“Everything will be all right once we get to Tir Asleen”.

 

Because, well, do you know what happens when you get to Tir Alseen? There are trolls and two-headed dragons and an army camps out on your doorstep. And I do not have a sword-wielding Val Kilmer handy to fight them all off.

When you get right down to it, goals are my response to the possibility of failure. An attempt to exert control over things that I cannot. Goals will get me to the keyboard or get me to crack open a notebook, but they won’t keep me there on their own. Nothing will kill a story idea faster than getting caught up in the idea of making it good instead of getting it done. 

Goals are about intentions. Practice is about actions. The reward for writing today isn’t getting a book published or getting things read. The reward for writing today is writing – an activity inherently pleasurable enough that I will produce thousands of words every week for fun in the form of pro-wrestling fanfic and RPG sessions with my friends.

None of which is saying I’m swearing off goals. I am, after all, mercurial as hell and likely to change my mind six seconds after posting this entry. But my resolution for 2016 is pretty simple: it’s not about where I want to be, it’s about what I’m doing. Every hour. Every day. Every month of the year.

I’m paying attention to what I’m doing, not where I want to be.

 

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

Four days left in the year, but there’s still seven days in the week. What are you trying to get done, fellow creative types? What’s inspiring you? What’s keeping you from getting your work finished?

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, Throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in week two (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week? Starting today, I set the space marines aside for a while and start rewriting the Gothic YA novel I wrote in the lead-up to GenreCon. I’ve got three weeks remaining on my leave and two notebooks worth of novel to redraft.

What’s inspiring me this week? I picked up John Steakley’s Armor after reading this piece about it on LitReactor. It’s a very weird little book written in a very distinctive style, and the switch between third person and first after the first quarter completely does my head in, but its depiction of the high-tech armor in question is one of the best I’ve come across since starting off my space marine reading stint.

I also watched In Your Eyes, which is probably the most interesting thing Joss Whedon has written in years and made me wish for a period where we saw more of him as a writer than a director. It’s a weird little SF love story that will annoy people who want their SF to be strong on the speculative, as the conceit is utterly subservient to the character story and never really explained.

What part of my project an I avoiding? It may be the most clichéd thing imaginable, but I need to clean my house. Yes, instead of writing, although it will technically be something I do after writing. My house of a den of filth at the moment and it’s hit the point where it’s affecting my writing habits. I’ve actually avoided sitting down on my desk-top for the last week ’cause the chair is covered in laundry and the desk piled high with books.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

Well, it’s here. Not just Sunday, where I ask all my fellow creative-types about their goals and inspirations for the coming week, but the holiday season where getting stuff done around the parties and family gatherings becomes a monolithic task.

Personally, my war on Christmas is all about carving out writing time amid the goddamn chaos.

If you’re doing the same, feel free to check in with the Sunday Circle. Just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them). After that, Throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in week two (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week? Ended up just shy of 14 hours of writing last week, according to Rescue Time, but the opening chapters of Space Marines: Pew! Pew! Pew! are starting to take form. I’ll be spending the next week is rewriting the first chapter, which is in the wrong tense at present, and finishing chapter two. Aiming for another 14 hours of writing, but quietly hoping I can get it to twenty given that I’ve now begun a month away from the day-job.

What’s inspiring me this week? I finally sat down and rewatched the Doom movie staring the Rock and , which I love in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with quality. I’m trying to work out what it is that I like about space marine movies even when they’re awful, so I can try and capture it in my writing.

What part of my project an I avoiding? Figuring out a structure for my day that works during the holidays. I had a really good run of getting my daily word-count in over the last week – frequently breezing past the two hour mark – but the moment we wrapped up the day-job for the year I went into a kind of endless procrastination that involved doing no work whatsoever (not just writing – I’m also avoiding laundry, cooking, and finalizing my Christmas shopping).

I am at my worse when I have time for things. This will make the next month dangerous.

Characters, Couples, and Trios

I have, for the last few hours, been musing about two movies I watched over the weekend. For those doing the maths: yes, that means I get up obscenely early. Yes, I wish it were otherwise. Screw the goddamn apnea.

Anyway, the movies.The first, Comet, is a small movie that charts the relationship between two characters over a six-year period, with numerous cuts back-and-forth in time. The second, 28 Hotel Rooms, is a small movie that charts the relationship between a man and a woman having an affair in a succession of hotel rooms, never seeing them outside of that context.

I picked them both for the actors involved and because the synopsis sounded vaguely interesting. And they were both…odd.

Is odd the right word? I’m not sure. They’re not necessarily movies I enjoyed, but movies I enjoyed watching. Movies where I appreciated the attempt and found the performances engaging, but found myself distracted by other stuff they were doing.

This is not surprising. Both films belong to a very specific film genre, where the narrative is driven by two characters talking to one another. The kind of movie one reviewer dubs scenes from a relationship in his review of Comet, while pointing out the essential risk:

It takes a certain degree of cinematic courage (or madness) to tell a story that really only has two characters. If your leads don’t have chemistry; if we don’t believe their relationship; if we just find ONE of them unlikable—you’re in serious trouble. One could program an entire alterna-Sundance of independent films that failed one of these “ifs.” – Brian Tallerico

I’ll admit, I’m a fan of the scenes from a relationship approach to movies, courtesy of my exposure to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise at an impressionable age. I’ll sit down and watch almost any film that gives it a go, but they’re often gruelling films to get through for all the reasons Tallerico notes. Hell, all the sequels for Before Sunrise – much as I love them – are movies where I need to fortify myself with unicorns and scotch before watching.

Being a fan of the genre, it infects my writing. If you throw in random dragons or kaiju invasions, a fair number of my stories are basically the scenes from a relationship approach.

So I brood about this kind of stuff. The difficulty of getting it right. And I think, perhaps, it goes a step beyond the thread of one character being likable or not. When I teach courses on character, I often point out that three is a magic number. In general, for writers, and definitely when thinking about characters. For some reason, the folk populating books and stories just work better when they have more than one other person to interact with.

For me, this is a question of context and subtext. At our core, we recognise that the faces we wear in a particular context are merely convenient truths. The person we are at work does not match the person we are in leisure, which does not match the person we are when left alone and free to delve into the less pleasant parts of our personality.

Truth, when it comes to identity, is inherently fluid.

This makes triads, at a bare minimum, far more interesting that films where two characters spend all their time talking too the other person. When you introduce a third person, you introduce subtext – the relationship a particular character has with one of their compatriots will not resemble the relationship they have with another.

You introduce new power dynamics, ’cause two people can gang up against a third, or try to curry favour and sway someone to their side of an argument.

You add subtext, since each character now needs to wear two masks.

We crave subtext, as an audience. It allows us to judge a character on our terms, instead of theirs. Allows us to peer beneath the mask. We can figure out who the character really is by charting a point between what they’re telling us and what we can pick up from their interactions.

When it comes to charting a course, three points of reference are better than two.

It’s why so many rom-coms will have sassy best friends and slacker room-mates littered through the plot. It only takes one scene of a protagonist talking to their best friend for the depth to appear, even if they’re in relative agreement about things. It’s why action heroes have sidekicks. Why pretty much every movie or book, ever, will have a subplot in which other characters appear.

Scenes from a relationship movies frequently abandon that conceit. In both Comet and 28 Hotel Rooms, interaction with secondary characters is minimal. The IMDB page for the latter lists exactly four characters, and only two have more than a single line. Comet goes so far as to have four characters that have actual dialogue exchanges, but only the two leads last longer than the opening act. And the first act of the film is when it’s at its most interesting, because of those dynamics.

Both films try to make up for the lack of additional interpersonal contexts by checking in on the character over the length of their relationship, but there’s only so much subtext that can be wrung out of that approach. The characters evolve or grow, but only within a tightly defined context. The mask worn over the course of a relationship may grow and change, but it’s still the relationship mask.

When I go back and look at Before Sunrise, which remains the high-water mark of the genre for me, it’s interesting how many additional characters intrude on the couple over the course of the film, providing a new shot of energy into the film even if they only last for the length of a scene.

Characters work best in groups, because they bring the audience on board as a collaborator. It makes them an active participant in the meaning of story, even if they aren’t really aware of it.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Bannerunday. The day of rest. The day of having a sleep in and getting the laundry done. The day of The Sunday Circle, where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, Throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in week two (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week? Still going through the opening chapters of Space Marines: Pew! Pew! Pew! Eschewing my usual goals of trying to hit a specific plot-point and getting back to basics – I want to spend 14 hours on the manuscript over the next week, as measured by RescueTime (which only counts the active typing time, not the sitting in the space and staring time).

What’s inspiring me this week? The most recent episode of NXT on the WWE Network. It’s hard to explain the brilliance of this show if you’re not a wrestling fan, but in terms of concise character work, it was phenomenal. Wrestlers will get, maybe, a minute of promo time to get over their characters and conflicts every week, which means they need to embrace economy and really focus what they’re doing. This often goes wrong, or comes off as lame. This week had a whole bunch of short promos that were brilliant.

What part of my project an I avoiding? There’s a series of clunky action scenes that need to be fixed and I’m avoiding them ’cause I hate action scenes. Which may be a failing, in an action-oriented Space Marine book.

2016 Project: A Year of Data About My Writing Practice

2016 is looming, as new years tend to do. I’ve been sorting through the options of big, writing-adjacent goal-setting projects I’d be interested in doing to replace the mad dash of the 600k year. Doing nothing was pretty high on the list, but that’s not in my nature. I like having big meta-projects to focus on that are writing-adjacent, even if they’re basically insane and designed to fail.

So I went through the list of things I really enjoyed and found useful in 2015 and came up with three words: word count data.

I tracked daily word-count pretty obsessively over the last twelve months. And, when I didn’t track words, I tracked daily pages in a notebook, faithfully switching back-and-forth between different coloured pens so I’d be able to see what was written on which day.

I’m still tracking my word-count now, updating my excel file after every writing session. First, because it’s become a habit. Second, because I like data. Data is fricken’ awesome. Data means that when I hit the first week of December and start wondering what the hell has gone wrong with my process, I can go back to previous years and see that December is always a goddamn awful month on the writing front.

Data lets me know that I only tend to break the 500 words/day barrier about half the days of the month, on average.

It lets me know that December is the month where I’m most likely to get a haircut, ’cause the increasing heat and humidity in Brisbane makes my head overhea–

Wait, that’s not writing related, is it? Forget I mentioned it. As haircuts go, it’s pretty terrible. As summers go, this one promises to be awful.

Data, though? Writing-related data tells me useful stuff. It highlights the reality of my writing process, rather than the pleasant fantasy of this is how I write that lives in my head.

On the other hand, my data collection was also put together by a version of myself that was fuzzy-headed and skating the edge of perpetual exhaustion, which means I’m spending this week thinking through what I’d like to actually track in 2016.

For all that the word count is a useful metric in some respects, I don’t track enough to be sure of the context. Did I only write 200 words on a particular day because the project was hard? Because I had a work gig? Because I was just fried and disappearing into a marathon game of CIV until my brain caught up? Because I was blogging more? Editing? Or writing pro-wrestling fanfic?

I can follow the very general patterns – Write Club days good, work days not so good, weekends basically non-existent in terms of getting stuff done – but there’s not quite enough there to hack the problems and start resolving them.

So, for 2016, I’m looking at the collection of writing data as my long-term project. I’ve just started revising the excel document I use for tracking writing to add in categories that will give me a little more data – one for other-writing, one for listing distractions and non-writing commitments.

I’ve also added RescueTime to both the home computers, so I can start to see exactly where my time is going on the computer from week to week, complete with a goal-setting that it will tell me if my daily word count actually represents a substantial chunk of writing time or something tapped out in fifteen minutes of frantic activity.

Every week or so, those will get dumped into the spreadsheet along with the other data, so I can figure out roughly how many minutes and hours went into a particular day’s word count.

And, ’cause I actually enjoyed the accountability of updating the 600k word-count spreadsheet during this year, I’ll take a look at doing another one for 2016.

Not quite as flashy as chasing a 600k year, I’ll admit, but probably more useful to me in the long wrong.

Also, hopefully, more likely to result in finished projects instead of a small mountain of rough drafts.