Tag Archives: writing challenges

At Base Camp, Looking Up

When I was a kid, one of my favourite Aesop’s fables was the one about the tortoise and the hare. You remember it, I’m sure. I loved the idea that the ‘underdog’ – the character who everyone expected to lose – actually managed to win, and that determination, not speed, was what took the prize. That appealed to me.

Arthur Rackham's illustration for 'The Tortoise and the Hare' Image: childhoodreading.com

Arthur Rackham’s illustration for ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’
Image: childhoodreading.com

I wasn’t a very sporty child, and so running races was something I really detested – I never won, in the sense of ‘I never came first’. I loved swimming, but the only time I ever thought – just for a second! – that I’d won a race in the pool, I’d actually ended up coming so far behind everyone else that all the other kids were out of the water and already half-dressed by the time I made it to the finish line. When I touched the wall at the far end of the pool, I looked around and didn’t see anyone either side of me, and just for those three seconds before I worked out what had happened, I felt like an Olympic champion.

Even though I never won at anything, though, I understood what the fable was trying to say: take it slow, take it steady, and you’ll get there in the end. Finishing a race became, to me, almost as good as coming first. Knowing I had done it, that I’d met the challenge and proved to myself that I could do it, was as good as a gold medal.

It’s amazing that I seem to have forgotten all those hard-earned childhood lessons when it comes to the race I’m currently ‘running’ – the race against time, to get all my words down before my NaNoWriMo challenge ends.

I haven’t gone anywhere near my NaNoWriMo project since Saturday morning, when I half-heartedly added a few hundred words to it, and then gave up; I didn’t even think about it all weekend. I haven’t opened the file yet this morning, and I’m – can you believe this? – a little bit afraid to. I worked very hard at it all last week, including one day when I wrote more than five thousand words because I felt like I wanted to keep going until I’d reached a certain point, but when it came to the next day – well. I couldn’t even manage two thousand words without bottoming out. I constantly do this – I race too hard one day and end up knocking myself out of the running for the days that follow. I haven’t run out of story for the NaNo project, and I haven’t run out of love for the characters – but I’ve just burned through so much mental and physical energy over the past three weeks that I’m beginning to have doubts that I’ll make it.

I have a shorter NaNo than most other people, insofar as I have to submit my words by this Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, at the latest. I will be away from my computer – indeed, any computer – from Thursday afternoon, and so my challenge will have to end early. If I don’t submit my words for counting and verification by Thursday morning, I won’t be submitting them at all. So, I suppose that’s adding to the worry – I don’t want to ‘lose’ this race. I want to finish it; I set out with the intention of finishing it, and that’s what I want to do. But, if I’d remembered the plucky tortoise from my favourite tale, and if I’d taken things slow and steady, I might not have just over 42,000 words done right now but I’d probably be a lot more enthusiastic about tackling the remainder.

I feel like a person setting off to climb a mountain, even though – when I think about it – I’m actually quite near the summit already. However, getting through these last 8-10,000 words will, I fear, be the hardest part of my NaNoWriMo journey. I’m tired, I’m cranky, my brain hurts and I just don’t want to do it – and that, my friends, is a place that no writer should ever allow themselves to end up. Writing is what I love, and putting myself in a position where I really can’t face the task of sitting down and putting one word after another due to exhaustion or burnout caused by a shortsighted inability to pace myself properly is really, really stupid.

Image: heidelscorner.blogspot.com

Image: heidelscorner.blogspot.com

So. I think, perhaps, it’s time to stop allowing panic to drive my NaNo train. I’ll take it slowly today and if I get a thousand words written, great. If I get two thousand written, great. If I start going over that, I think I’ll have to rein myself in and let my common sense – my inner tortoise, if you will – take over.

Slow and steady wins the race. I should just print this out and put it up over my computer – or, get it tattooed on my forehead. Whichever works, right?

Good luck with your day’s challenges. Take it steady – or, as we say in Ireland, ‘take ‘er handy.’


Wednesday Write-In #63

This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet’s Wednesday Write-In were:

hideout  ::  transitory  ::  share  ::  full bodied  ::  problem

Image: blog.kyletunneyphotography.com

Image: blog.kyletunneyphotography.com

Little Girl Lost

‘It’s almost full bodied, isn’t it?’ Becky settled her head on her folded arms as she stared out the reinforced window, her vision getting lost in the howling dark. Nelson cleared his throat, wondering where she was going with this one.

‘How d’you mean, full bodied? Like, curvaceous?’ He licked his lips.

‘Nah, you twit,’ she said, turning to smile at him. In the candlelight, her hair was translucent. ‘I mean, multi-layered. Sort of lovely, if you look at it the right way. Full of hidden depths.’

‘If you say so.’ Nelson settled back into his chair. ‘Just looks like a pile of snow, to me.’

‘Yes. Well. You never did have an eye for beauty.’ She waited for his snort of laughter, but the crackle of the radio interrupted them.

Hideout? We’ve got a problem.’ Becky moved smoothly, on silent feet, to Nelson’s side.

‘Control? Hideout here. What’s up?’ Nelson’s voice was steady, but his fingers weren’t.

It’s the signal. It’s fluctuating,’ came the reply. Becky wasn’t sure who was speaking – the voice was unfamiliar. Control changed radio operators pretty frequently; nobody lasted long, up here.

‘Fluctuating? How can it fluctuate?’ replied Nelson. The set started to squeal, like an animal in pain.

…can’t explain it. It’s strong as ever one second, and gone the next. Have you…’ The rest of the message was lost in a scramble of static. Nelson fiddled with the controls as Becky bit back her urge to tell him to hurry. She clenched her fists and turned back toward the window again, the darkness drawing her eyes like water to a plughole.

Then, something hit the glass. Something small. Something pale.

‘Nelson!’ she said, in a half-hiss. ‘There’s something – ‘

Hideout? Hideout, are you there?’ The radio sputtered. ‘Be advised we’re getting readings… levels of radiation off the…

‘Hello? Control?’ Nelson thumped the set. ‘Dammit! I can’t find the frequency. It’s like something’s bending the waves.’ Becky was only half-listening.

‘Nelson, there’s something out there,’ she said, her voice low. ‘Something alive.’ Nelson sucked his teeth in irritation and bent toward the radio again.

‘Your brain’s got frostbite, darlin’,’ he muttered. ‘Nothin’s able to live out there, Becks! You know that. Come and help me with this, willya?’

A small, pale shape slapped itself against the window pane, and then was gone again. It reminded Becky of a piece of paper caught in the jaws of the wind, a transitory message left unread. A downy feather, floating on a breath of breeze. A flash of sunlight through green leaves. A tiny face with dark eyes, lost.

She’d slipped into her jacket before Nelson even noticed she’d moved from his side.

‘Oi!’ he yelled, as a gust of frozen wind ripped through the hideout, upending equipment and dousing candles. Before he could move, Becky was out the door; by the time he’d suited up and made it to the threshold, she’d been swallowed by the emptiness.

Becky!’ he called, his breath fogging up his visor. ‘For God’s sake! Where are you?’ He took a couple of steps away from the hideout, trying to follow Becky’s tracks. He could only see a few feet, and he was terrified to move too far from the door. You could turn around in weather like this and get so lost you’d never be found, and Nelson knew it.

Already, he was getting tired. It had only been seconds, and his bones were starting to ache. He took two more steps, and then he fell to his knees.

Then, somewhere up ahead, something moved. Nelson’s heart skipped as he struggled to focus on it.

‘Becks?’ he shouted, realising as he did so that he was out of breath. ‘Becky!

A child – a child? – appeared out of the whirling snow. Tiny, white, dark eyes, dressed in rags. Nelson didn’t know her, but that was the least weird thing about her being there. He struggled to understand as his blood turned to slush in his veins. Nelson blinked, and the child was beside him, her cruel teeth bared and her tiny ice-dagger fingers around his neck.

‘Next time you’ll share your warmness and your good stuff, won’t you?’ whispered the child as it stepped over Nelson, its bare feet blue. ‘Next time I won’t have to take what I need, will I?’

The only answer the child received as it closed and sealed the hideout door against the night was the hiss of the radio, still searching for a signal that would never come.

Picking up the Pen

So, today I’m facing a disappointment. I’ve had another rejection, and this time it’s a big one. I’m dealing with it the only way I know how, which is by picking up the (metaphorical) pen and continuing with what I love best.

In that spirit, here’s a wee piece of flash fiction, which also happens to be my entry for Flash! Friday for this week. It’s a tiny bit risqué, but I hope I’ll be forgiven.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be off. I have a bit of picking myself up, dusting myself off and getting back on the horse to do… Happy Friday, and happy weekend.

Image: silentfilmlivemusic.blogspot.com

Image: silentfilmlivemusic.blogspot.com

A Moment on the Lips…

‘All right, Mr. Fairchild. Nearly finished.’

‘Doctor, may I ask – is it serious?’

‘Not sure, old chap. Let me just take another look at your skull. Hold still, now.’

‘My skull? But I thought -’

‘Hold still, Mr. Fairchild, please.’

‘I say! Are you quite sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘Mr. Fairchild, be reasonable. I am the preeminent authority on STDs in the country, after all.’

‘S… STDs? What on earth?’

‘Supernaturally Transmitted Diseases, sir.’

‘Of – of course. Yes. Supernatural, you say?’

‘Mmm. Just turn your head, there’s a good chap. Ah, yes – just as I thought. Definite lengthening of the earlobe, and if I’m not mistaken… Yes. A nascent protuberance.’

‘A what?’

‘You’re growing horns, Mr. Fairchild. Tell me, was it a faun? It normally is.’

‘It – what? It was just a kiss!’

‘Yes, yes. That’s what they all say. Why don’t you have a seat, old bean. You look done in.’

‘Good God. What shall I tell my wife?’

‘Oh, I should think it doesn’t matter. I give it about a week before you’re gambolling and eating grass.’

‘You can’t mean…’

‘I certainly do.’

‘Isn’t there –’

‘Anything I can do? Afraid not, old bean. Now. Will that be cash, or cheque?’



Take it From Me…

So, yesterday I had to cut over 6,000 words from the current draft of ‘Tider’. It caused me a whole lot of pain to do that, I can tell you. It took my word count right down from where it had been – up there in ‘almost finished, look at that!’ territory – to ‘wow, I have so much more work to do on this’-ville.

For once, Picasso explains exactly how I feel. Image: inminds.com

For once, Picasso explains exactly how I feel.
Image: inminds.com

I know it’s for the best, and all that; I know I was removing useless stuff, words that had blown in from somewhere far away and had taken root, and started to eat away at the foundations of the story like ivy on a wall. It didn’t make it any easier to hit the ‘cut’ button, though. I hope this affliction doesn’t burden everyone who writes, this ‘every word is sacred’ mentality; I guess it can’t, because if it did, nobody would ever write anything. Ever.

I thought today, then, I might blog about Things Wot I Have Learned as part of my writing process, in the hope that other people will learn from my colossal buffoonery.

Sometimes, no matter how much effort you make to force something to fit into a story, it’s just not going to work.

So, you’ve had a brilliant idea. A flash of inspiration brighter than Alpha Centauri. An image which, when it occurred to you, made your knees weak with the sheer beauty of it. A sentence – a Booker Prize winning sentence, you feel sure – has dropped into your head straight from the Muse’s fingers, fully formed. You love it more dearly than you love anything else in the world, and you must use it. There must be a place to display this evidence of your brilliant and inquiring mind.

Except there isn’t, because the idea you’ve had – when you really think about it – is completely off the wall, and just doesn’t fit with your current project.

Often, when I’m writing, I find my brain splaying out in all possible directions, soaking up information and ideas from everywhere but the page it’s supposed to be looking at. I catch myself thinking about details I’m planning to use in other books, or getting distracted by plotting a sequel to the book I’m currently working on. This is not because I’m some sort of writing genius, I hasten to clarify; it’s because I’m an easily-distracted flibbertigibbet. My brain sometimes gets a bit scared at the idea of being stuck into one idea for an extended period, and it feels the need to ‘stretch its legs’, a bit like a toddler who’s just learning to walk. And, like a toddler, on occasion it will get itself lost or tripped up. It will go foraging in the garden of my mind and come back, its hands full of worms and dirt, showing them to me as if to say ‘isn’t this a brilliant idea, huh, huh?’

Invariably, it’s not. But, my brain being what it is, sometimes I’ll look at this new idea and think it’s not half bad, and then I’ll try to incorporate it into whatever I’m working on. When it doesn’t work, instead of going ‘oh, well. That’s that, then,’ I can tend to get a bit anxious, and allow myself to slip into a panic-vortex. ‘Why isn’t this working?’ I’ll wail, tearing out my metaphorical hair. ‘I’m useless at this whole writing thing! I must go and become a plumber/sheep farmer/nuclear physicist instead!’

What I should do is this: Calm Down. It’s an idea, and there are ideas everywhere. There will be others. Put this one aside somewhere, carefully noted and prettily packaged, and come back to it another time. Then, get back to what you were doing before you were rudely interrupted. I’ve often sidetracked myself and written thousands of words on the back of a tangent which came to me in a panic, and all that happens to those words is that they get junked. This causes pain. You don’t want to do it more than once.

Oh, look, let’s leave a totally random ‘note to self’ somewhere on the manuscript, because of course when I come back to this in a week or two or ten, I’ll know exactly what I meant by it.

I actually find it hard to believe I do this, because I’d like to think I am in possession of a reasoned, logical mind most of the time. I know, for instance, that I have a pretty poor memory, and that leaving notes for myself is something I’ve done since I was old enough to hold a crayon. I also know that nothing is more confusing than navigating through the half-written carcass of a novel; it’s a bit like trying to find your way through a howling sandstorm on a planet with which you’re not familiar. The ground keeps shifting under your feet and you can’t see beyond the end of your nose a lot of the time. So, of course, the perfect thing to do is leave yourself a cryptic clue which you’re pretty sure was intended to flag a vital plot point, with absolutely no explanation of what you meant by it. When you come across it again, you might as well be faced with the Voynich Manuscript for all the sense it makes to you.

Normally, if you’re me, this triggers another panic-vortex: see above for hair-pulling, gnashing of teeth, and so forth. You convince yourself that without figuring out this note the whole book will fall apart in a world-rending schism, and the story will crumble in upon itself, and your life will end.

None of this is true.

What I should do is this: Calm Down. Keep writing. Finish The Book. When redrafting, revisit the note or the randomly-inserted sentence, or whatever it is, and see if you can remember what you meant. If you can’t, see if you can give it another meaning (usually, though you won’t realise it, this ‘new’ meaning is exactly the same as the original one); if you can’t do that, then consider removing it. The world won’t end. Trust me.

This makes *total* sense, of course... Image: apod.nasa.gov

Ooh, look, I make *total* sense, of course…
Image: apod.nasa.gov

There are so many lessons you learn when trying to write a book. So far, I’ve learned more about myself and how I cope with the world than I’ve learned about writing, but perhaps that’s to be expected. If I could distil what I’ve learned, it would be something like this:

Calm Down

Finish the Book

Calm Down Again

I hope this helps. Have a great Friday, and take it from me – writing is easier if you remember these golden guidelines.

Image: healthsmart.ie

Image: healthsmart.ie

Wednesday Write-In #41

Prompts: audit  ::  smother  ::  lost property  ::  plumber  ::  Disneyland

Image: thejewelstore.com

Image: thejewelstore.com

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz

If hair oil and attitude could stand up on two legs and growl, thought Josephine, then they’d look just like this guy. Six foot five with overalls like the inside of a coalmine, he clutched a wrench as long as she was tall and grimaced down at her like she was something that had bubbled up out of a sewer.

‘What the hell you think this place is, Disneyland? Don’t give me that,’ he said.

‘All I asked was…’

‘I know what you asked!’ he replied, leaning down to give her the full benefit of his meat-breath. ‘I heard ya.’ Jo stepped back a little, wishing she could close her nostrils like a camel in the desert.

‘Look,’ she said, once she’d regained her composure. ‘The guest says it fell down the drain in her bathroom. Isn’t it, I dunno, logical that it’d end up here?’

‘Listen, sweetcheeks,’ he said, pulling a rollup from behind one encrusted ear, ‘I’m a plumber, not a magician. You watched me take that pipe apart. Did you, or did you not, see a diamond ring?’ He ran his liver-coloured tongue up the length of his homemade cigarette before slipping it between his lips. ‘You did not see a diamond ring, my friend, because no diamond ring exists. Ergo.’ He pronounced it ‘ergot’, like the fungus, not like the Latin, and Jo struggled not to correct him.

‘Do not light that up, Valentine,’ she said, knowing even as she spoke that it was pointless. Her eyes began to water as the rancid stink of whatever he was smoking filled the tiny, closed space between them. He bared his teeth in what he probably thought was a grin, his tectonic shoulders shaking in a silent laugh.

‘Are you saying the guest is lying? Because, you know, that’s a serious accusation, Val.’ His only response was a shrug and an eyeroll. ‘She’ll be coming down to Lost Property at 4pm, so we need to have something to show her before then.’ He fixed her with a glare and exhaled a thin stream of poisonous smoke straight into her face. She did her best not to smother, as she wasn’t sure what Val would do with her body. Stuff it in the pipe and hope for the best, she reckoned, with a shudder.

‘So, what? You expect me to find a ring that ain’t there in case an over-pampered human poodle decides to sue, or something?’ He looked like he wanted to spit.

‘Look, nobody said anything about suing anyone,’ said Jo, coughing slightly. ‘But – you know. She may ask for an audit of the entire premises, or a hotel-wide search, or even a systemic scouring of every square inch of pipe in the place. Right? So if you don’t want to spend the next six weeks scrubbing God knows what out of God knows where…’

‘Find the ring, right, right,’ muttered Val. ‘Who is this broad, anyway?’

Josephine licked her lips as she thought about how to reply.

‘Think billionaire lawyer’s wife crossed with Hollywood royalty crossed with actual royalty,’ she said. ‘And then double it.’

Val’s eyes bugged out. ‘Am I right in thinkin’ this ring’s more than just a fancy finger-bauble, then?’

Josephine nodded, slowly. ‘It’s probably worth more than the entire hotel,’ she said. ‘I’m not joking.’

‘All right, all right,’ grumbled Val, adjusting his grip on the wrench. He bent to the pipe once more, sizing up which bolt to loosen next. ‘Get outta there, a’right? A man needs room to work.’ He leaned in to the job before Jo had a proper chance to get herself out of the way, and a rusty, foul spray of something she didn’t want to think about fizzed out, all over her regulation navy pencil skirt.

‘Valentine!’ she shrieked. ‘Watch what you’re doing!’

‘Sorry! Jeez! It’s only water, okay? Quit the yellin’!’

‘Jesus!’ She scrubbed at the front of her skirt, but it was soaked through. A dark stain was already spreading itself over her lap. ‘I can’t work the rest of my shift in this.’ She glared at Val, but softened when she saw the contrition written all over his face.

‘I’ll pay for your cleaning bill, you know, if…’

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. ‘Please, Val. You earn less than I do. Look, just carry on with the job, okay? I’ll go and change, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.’ She risked a grin, and he gave her a grimy thumbs-up as she got to her feet.

‘Okay, then. Well. Let me know if you find anything, won’t you?’

‘You know it,’ said Val, already shifting his focus back to the pipe.

‘And – Val?’ she said. He shot his eyes back toward her again, something like nervousness in his eyes. ‘Put that cigarette out, okay? It’s completely against regulations in here.’ He huffed out a sudden chuckle before pinching the cigarette out and slipping it back behind his ear in one practised motion. She smiled her thanks before turning away and hurrying, click-clack, down the hall and back up toward the hotel proper. Val watched until she’d reached the utility stairs and climbed them, and he listened for the bang as the fire-door slammed closed.

Only then did he reach into his breast pocket and retrieve the tiny, shimmering ring which had been nestling there all along. He allowed himself a minute to imagine it adorning his Millie’s wedding finger before dropping it back into the murky sludge inside the pipe that lay, in pieces, on the floor.

‘She wouldn’t wear it anyway, and if it’s that fancy I couldn’t sell it, neither,’ he muttered. ‘Ain’t no good to nobody.’

He sighed, and settled back against the wall to enjoy his cigarette in peace. He’d have to leave it at least twenty minutes, maybe more, before going to break the good news to Jo. Plenty of time to enjoy a smoke, and daydream about asking for a raise.