Saturday, 30 July 2011

Buying Another Shovel is Not Digging A Hole.

Fellow on-line student and writer Steven Bluestone's words, posted in the ToDo Institute's Taking Action course forum earlier in the week, really hit home:

Buying another shovel is not digging a hole.

That one simple sentence says a lot. I am definitely a shovel purchaser, always off at the implement shop adding this or that to my collection.

In truth, perhaps I should have been a researcher. Or a research assistant? What is the correct term for someone who, given a thread of information, can go off and find all the bits and pieces to end up with both the warp and woof of an excellent piece of cloth? That's me, Alice, down the rabbit hole. I thrive on it.

I realise, as I write this, that it doesn't do to just blame myself for being inefficient and not getting the job done, which is sortof what I've been doing this past week (or quarter or half a year) while I've been enthralled with exploration and adventures into my topic. Why haven't I increased my word count this week? I asked, as if the number of words was the only measure of success at this juncture.

As I think back over my professional writing career -- the past two decades or so -- I know that everything I worked on as an author required some amount of research. Often, it required a lot. A few times, the learning and research was 90% of the job and the actual writing 10%. Though it seems strange now, that's the way it was. Sometimes, I was given piles of paper, schematics, competitive information and Powerpoint presentations by the client--while at othertimes, I was sent off to dig for the information, the diagrams, the statistics, the history, even the basics of the technology.

And, from all of that, I would craft a brochure, an annual report, a technical review, a training presentation, a glossy marketing piece, a white paper, a user manual or a whole campaign to reward the sales people who trained themselves and sold the largest number of the widgets that I was researching and writing about. I have some incredible experience in the high tech and telecommunications fields, come to think of it. Being a good researcher really helped.

Today, where I am in the novel (just under 79,000 words, headed towards 120,000 perhaps) suddenly feels much the same. I simply do not know all that I need to know and I now have to get the information. I began knowing nothing about this Crimean War thing beyond the intriguing overviews I'd read and the history that related to Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole.  I'd heard of Raglan and Cardigan but didn't hardly realise they were more than types of sleeves on a sweater.

Now I know a great deal about this 'conflict', along with my more specific recent work on the 349-day-long Siege and the City of Sebastapol itself (today spelled Sevastapol) in the Ukraine, or the Crimean Peninsula. Think Black Sea. Constantinople. That one. At last, I know where the harbour, barracks, trenches, city centre and cemeteries lay and how they were approached, defended, attacked, reapaired and attacked again.

I still don't know where the hospitals were located but, judging from the number of dead, I'll bet they weren't far from the cemeteries with all the mass graves. There's are books on the way that will give me that information--e.g. it turns out that Tolstoy (yes, that one) was stationed there and wrote an account of the siege. Plus, I've located an online seller of antiquarian maps who has an original, detailed Russian map from the period. What a find that could be!

The pile of documents I've printed, the megabytes of electronic books in .pdf format and in my Kindle application, the tiled maps I've lovingly printed, trimmed and taped together and hung on the walls--are all a testament to that long history of having to research everything before I write it. It's useful to have a lot of shovels if you're going to write historical fiction.

So, at the same time I am reminding myself that buying another shovel is not the same as digging a hole, I'm also accepting that I chose to write historical fiction--not a fluffy romance with no historical, costume or societal detail added--and that this care to detail and attention to accuracy is what I've been honing for the past twenty years. Indeed, it's part and parcel of what will make the story a good one. If I fail to provide it, my readers will be disappointed. Or there won't be any.

So I do seem to need lots of shovels. Note to Self: It's ok to get more shovels so long as I don't forget that the ultimate objective is to dig a great big hold and fill it with a wonderfully "sweeping" and accurate piece of historical fiction that tells the story of my heroine and her adventures in life against the broad expanse of this piece of world history which began as nothing to me and has now come very much alive for me.

I accept it. Last week I spent a lot of time and some money at the hardware store, arming myself. Coffee. Check. Shovels. Check. This week I will dig a big hole and fill it with all the things I've learned. Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

I'm a flamingo now. And an early bird. And proud of it!

 This morning I wrote my daily "750words" for the 18th day in a row. On the 15th of July, I got my "flamingo" badge. On the 18th I got my "early bird" badge. For what? I don't know. I guess I got up early that day.

I don't know why 18 days in a row struck me as momentous except that, for perhaps the first time, I "just did it" this morning instead of thinking about it or, as sometimes happens, thinking about what I could do instead of doing it. Or how I could do it later. Or how my pencils needed sharpening and my desk needs tidying. Any excuse will do, as we all know.

Last night, it was after 10p.m. when I remembered I hadn't done my 750words. I sat down and did them.

Eighteen days, in the great scheme of things, isn't a lot. I have a Twitter contact, @ebenstorm, who's written 250,000 words since he began He must be a Golden Eagle. I live in awe and dream for the day and am happy to have my flamingo and chicken.

My number is 14,150. But I am proud of those words because they tell me that I can be consistent and I can change behaviours. I like that.

My hero: Buster Benson himself.
Three people had to tell me "you ought to do this" before I listened and did it. I'm glad I did. Thank you, three people.

The benefits for me fall into several categories:


  •  It makes me aware--daily!--that I can sit down and write, in spite of excuses or distractions.
  • About half the time, I use my 750words to "talk" through questions or problems with my novel.  Somehow, the answers appear.
  • About one-fourth of the time, I actually write text that IS intended for my novel and gets cut and pasted into my Scrivener manuscript.
  • About one-fourth of the time I just do stream-of-consciousness stuff, have an 'ain't it awful' whinge at myself or write about a family or personal issue that's troubling me just to get it off my chest.
750words is the brainchild of Buster Benson, who's also the creator of  "HealthMonth, The Game", which I am also 'playing'. To say he's really onto something is an understatement. I think he's quite brilliant, especially for being such a young guy. For me, because the sites are relatively un-glitzy and ad-free, there are ways to connect to others and extra goodies to encourage players to communicate with each other, it's just plain fun. And it works.

Oh, yes, on HealthMonth we get 'life points' and fruit for performance (and get them taken away if we don't--but not to worry, we can give fruit to each other to 'heal' our compatriots). I have lots of fruit (and share it willingly) and still have life points left to see me through the month -- so it's clear that's working too.

And, if all that wasn't enough, one of my "A Round of Words in 80 Days" (ROW80) goals is to make weekly updates to my two blogs -- this one and my Malaysia blog. {You'll have to go there to see the photos of the Silvery Langurs I took earlier in the week, though).

I'm excited: I accomplished that goal, too, this week. No new badges, birds or bananas for it, though...just a really nice feeling of 'hey, I'm getting there'! And I am.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A Round of Words in 80 Days...Checking In

I signed up for the A Round of Words in 80 Days challenge on Tuesday, July 5th so it's been a week and a day. As I've also been doing and HealthMonth, I somehow nearly forgot to update this commitment as well. Tsk, tsk.

That's the BAD news. So far, I am unrepentant. The GOOD news is that since ROW80 began seven days ago, I've written just under 20,000 words. All right, 19,677. I thought I'd go over but today, well, events conspired, and I only managed 900 words. Never mind, tomorrow is another day. I am pleased.

As to my other goals (there were four, elucidated below to remind me) I am progressing those, though I really do need to get busy on the travel blog. I have some wonderful photos of a troop of fantastically tame Silver Leaf Monkeys (see left) at Bukit Melawati, near the West Coast of Malaysia, and they're just begging to be the next post topic. It was a very memorable time, up close and personal with those monkeys! I enjoyed them so much I am going back next week to take more photos.

If, of course, I keep my ROW80 projects on task!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Words, words, words...and then more words.

Five-thousand four hundred and thirty-three. While I might wish it was dollars or pounds won in a lottery, alas, it's only the number of words I wrote yesterday.

Lotus, Orchid Garden, Kuala Lumpur
Only? I'll take it! Finally, my writing is finally taking on a life of its own. It wants to be there and wants to get done. I've struggled for the four months since we moved to Malaysia to make it a regular habit; I've longed for this book to become my passion and for it and its characters to compel me forward. I couldn't understand why it seemed like other people wrote as if chased through the woods by banshees, driven to get their story on paper, while I just fiddled around with it and "worked" on it when the mood suited me or there wasn't some charity project to complete, a dozen emails to answer, photos to edit, days out with friends...whatever.

Understanding may be coming at last. Knowing that I am a more than competent "writer"--having made a very decent living at it for a couple of decades--I rather assumed that turning my attention would be much the same sort of process. An assignment, a timeline, tools, a project brief, research, a finished product, some rounds of review, critique and edits--finalisation and, kerblooey, a cheque for the bank account and a pat on the back.

I always found it pretty easy. I was the "Oh, let's call her. She'll get this done!" person. That's how it works, isn't it?

Well, no. After some months of barely discernible progress on my own work of historical fiction, begun during NaNoWriMo 2011, I was flummoxed. Did I really want to write? What was wrong with me? I had 50,000 words. I was  NaNoWriMo winner, comfortably resting on that laurel and occasionally wearing the t-shirt. But, while I was happy to research my topic and learn all about The Crimean War, medical practices in 19th century England, how to load and fire an Enfield rifle...all that effort wasn't being tranformed into words on paper. Why wasn't it happening? Where were the other 50,000 words?

OK. Panic sets in. On the theory that anything is better than sitting around, paralysed, I signed up for a couple of online writing classes through the UK-based Writing Our Way Home. Excellent stuff! I spent the months of April and May observing things around me and learning with Fiona and Kaspa, respectively, working in small groups exploring spirituality via writing and then moving into four different Japanese forms of writing and therapeutic writing.

Finally, I was getting somewhere. Since I'd expended so much energy taking photographs as we learned our way around Malaysia, written a bunch of poems and "small stones" in the WOWH workshops AND was dealing with a mother who really wanted me to be in California and not here...I self-published a book of photos and poems from my time here specifically for my parents, daughter and grandchildren. It was a hit.

But why wasn't a novel getting written? I didn't have writer's block. I had a story and something to say. I can sit down and write a 2,000 word email before breakfast. I am nothing if not prolific when it comes to spewing out words. In fact, I'd benefit from some genetic splicing involving the brevity gene, thank you.

On June 6th, I began a third on-line month-long course, this one through The ToDo Institute in Vermont, USA. It was called "Taking Action: Finishing the Unfinished". The course is based on the Japanese therapies of Naikan and Morita. Participants pick a project--of any persuasion--that just ain't getting done. And they learn how to do it in spite of themselves. Hmmmm. That sounded like just the thing for me. I signed up.

Wow. The course is finished. The cumulative result is amazing. I spent most of this past month doing small tasks, researching things about the Crimean War and Victorian England that I did need to know--all in manageable chunks and all while learning to deal with a lot of negative feelings, project-prohibiting strategies I use--and a whole lot more.

How did it get easy when it seemed so hard? Well, one of the quotes that sticks with me from the course is that "We can do hard." (Bo Lozoff). And guess what? I can do hard. Ironically, of course, it turns out it's not that difficult after all. In the words of Shoma Morita, PhD, “Confirm purpose, pay attention to reality, and do what needs doing next.” Course co-leader Loraine adds: "Rinse. Repeat."

Along the way, I picked up several significant management strategies (time, project, goals) from the course and the other participants in it, too. My whole day--in fact, my whole life--is looking just a bit different now as a result. It's healthier, I'm healthier--and a manuscript is moving toward completion. A good result.

And, speaking of the past four days I've written 2,743 + 2,804 + 5,462 + 5,433 words. That's a total of  16,442 words in four days, or over 4,100 words per day. I'd hoped that I could average 3,000 per day so have, frankly, been a little surprised by the total. But, like I said, I'll take it.

Yes, I've already begun today's work on the novel and now I'm keen to get back to it. One of my resolves was to blog more consistently so I am taking a break to share the outcome. Being a zealot once converted, I'll post more specifics but, at the moment, it's time to get back to the work at hand. I really do want to finish this book before November's NaNoWriMo, when I'd like to start a new project and, hopefully, struggle a lot less with getting to that page that said "THE END".

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Round of Words in 80 Days...Colour Me Signed Up!

A Round of Words in 80 days (ROW80), or, as author Kristin Lamb called it in her blog, "Everybody was Kung-Fu Writing–A Round of Words in 80 Days" has officially begun.

As Kristin put it, author and originator Kait Nolan "has come up with a new writing challenge that appreciates that most of us have a life".Indeed, we do and thanks, Kait, for starting it and thanks, Kristin, for your work that made me aware of it.

Interested? Can't wait? Want to join in?  Sign up here.

Since it officially opens on July 4th and it's technically still July 4th in the US for another hour and 10 minutes (though it's June 5th in Malaysia) I decided that it was kismet that I happened to see it and, as the ToDo Institute on-line class called Taking Action (it's for procrastinators and I qualified ever so easily) ends on the 6th, ROW80 sounds like the next good thing to keep me moving forward on my novel and other projects.

If I've learned one thing in my four months of freedom to write in Malaysia, it's that I need deadlines to work to and challenges to rise to. I've taken three back-to-back courses and all have contributed something to the process.

So, herewith, my goals for the 80 days of this installment of A Round Of Words in 80 Days. Using an online countdown timer, I believe this is September 22, 2011 (or the 23rd for me!)

  1. TRAVEL ARTICLE (Ruby's Resort): finish the draft, edit it, select the photos from my Zenfolio Gallery and submit to MANZA Magazine by 20th July.
  2. NOVEL (Coldstream): Write/research/edit for a minimum of two hours per weekday, using the "Pomodoro" time management technique and completing four focused pomodoros minimum each weekday. Weekends are dependent on home schedule but read at least one article or chapter of research materials per weekend day if not actively writing. Probably another 50K words are required, plus extensive research into several aspects of the Crimean War and Victorian England in the 1850s. Ideally, I'd like to have at least 75,000 words by 22nd September. Some text presently in the novel will naturally be cut in the editing process.
  3. TRAVEL BLOG (RoadNoise): Post a minimum of twice per month, weekly if possible. Write shorter blog posts than in the past and get in the habit of regular posts. Use own photos, continuing Photoshop training and practice. Promote with weekly tweets and Facebook pages. Grow views per month to 100 by 22nd September.
  4. WRITING BLOG (this one!) Update ROW80 progress weekly. Triple follower count (10 to 30).
  5. POETRY:  Complete Writing Our Way Home course, "Writing Ourselves Alive". Use poetry from this class, along with ongoing photographs taken in Malaysia, to complete Volume II of "Poems and Photos". Drop photos and poems into BookSmart and (self) publish/print by September 10th.
  6. TRAVEL WRITING: Attend Malaysian Association of Tour & Travel Agents (MATTA) Travel fair in Kuala Lumpur for one day, August 12, 13 or 14. Gather information and talk to travel magazines, websites, airlines, operators etc. Within two weeks, have a list of six potential articles to write and pitch for submission. Have two articles in draft form by September 22nd.
Ahhh, the dizzying heights! Ohhhh, the hot air! Well, then, let the adventure begin. Eighty days and a round of words. Yes, please! And if you think YOU want to, click here and see how simple it is.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

'Small Stones' and Big what's up with Fiona & Kaspa?

Kaspa & Fiona have taken over my blog for today, because they need our help. I think they must have noticed that I've certainly not been using it!

I've just taken two back-to-back courses with (first) Fiona and (second) Kaspa and they were terrific courses AND instructors. If you're interested in writing, or exploring your own abilities and/or the Eastern writing traditions, it's definitely a "recommend".

So, what's up then? OK, since you's their message...

Fiona and Kaspa are both on a mission to help the world connect with the world through writing. They are also getting married on Saturday the 18th of June. (Big congratulations, guyz!)

For their fantasy wedding present, they are asking people across the world to write them a ‘small stone’ and post it on their blogs or on Facebook or Twitter. 

A small stone is a short piece of observational writing – simply pay attention to something properly and then write it down. Find out more about small stones here. 

If you’re willing to help, we’d love you to do things: 

1) Re-post this blog on your own blog any time before June the 18th and give your readers a chance to hear about what we’re doing. You can simply copy and paste the text, or you can find the html here. 

2) Write us a small stone on our wedding day whilst we’re saying our vows and eating cake, post it on your blog, and send it to us.

You can find out more about our project at our website, Wedding Small Stones, and you can also read our blog at A River of Stones. 

We also have a July challenge coming soon, when we’ll be challenging you to notice one thing every day during July and write it down. 

Thank you for listening, and we hope we’ll be returning from our honeymoon to an inbox crammed with small stones, including yours. 

Kaspa & Fiona

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Resolution v Commitment: 'What's the Difference' Anyway?

My copy of the New Oxford Dictionary ("A landmark in the description of English" it proclaims) was one of the first things I bought when I moved to England; it came with a Thesaurus and a volume of Quotations. It was a great deal from The Times, which I used to read manically every Sunday in my "bloom where you're planted" attempt to fit in and speak the language.

I never manage to find a place to put said OED and its four million words on my work table (note to Self: do some filing and carry cups and glasses to kitchen, untangle all the electronic as gadget cables as a further delaying tactic.). Usually I just go to when I need to look up a word.

But, this once, just now and in honour of the New Year, I did.

Rewind (whirring sounds here) to one o'clock in the morning on the second of January. Last night. I woke and discovered that NPR's Prairie Home Companion was over and I'd missed 85% of it yet again (it comes on here from 11-1am so I am hard-pressed to stay awake for it; as a result, I record it with iTuneRadio on my iTouch and listen later).

Because this is what the mind does when it awakes to silence and darkness, I continued my self-directed guilty tirade that I hadn't done any resolving for the New Year. In fact, here it was officially the 2nd of January in GMT-land and I was still getting Facebook notices about my fellow writers busily making resolutions, even when they proclaimed a distaste and an aversion for them--and sometimes marvelled how they didn't work anyway.

My mind and ego steeled themselves. I was not going to succumb to the angst of the potential guilt at not having written a list of resolutions in a blog, even as it occurred to me that I actually had written some in a wild attempt to win a fellow writer's contest. Well, I consoled myself, it was one of the requirements of the competition and I was compelled to comply if I wanted a chance at winning the prize.

Part of me railed against my own logic. Was it just another excuse, like having the 'fat free' cookie(s) fully aware that they still have 100 calories each? Or the 'sugar free' cookies which still have 100 calories and taste good because of the fat and additives? [I'm good at that self-deception stuff].

"Well, never mind," I exclaimed, "you are committed to a course of action for 2011. You know what it is. You don't need to make a list of resolutions that might only encourage you, subconsciously, to fail yet again." And so on.

So there I was, awake yet unresolved. What to do, what to do? I happened to be listening to an NPR station, WNPR, which next aired a programme I'd never heard before--"Says You!"--and so I listened to that for a while, thinking I'd go back to sleep.

First up was a game called "What's The Difference". Panelists were challenged to explain the difference between pairs or words: generosity vs altruism; statue vs sculpture; recital vs concern. And so on. Sometimes it was easy and, sometimes, it was more difficult than I imagined.

What, then, I wondered, is the difference between resolution and commitment? Am I only fooling myself with my 'commitments'? Are they just like the calories I can so easily ignore?

Ahhh, the OED will know. I listened to the show, added it to my 'listen list' to record from afar and decided to research the show and the terms in the morning. And here I am. Excited, this is a rare chance to actually heft the thing out of its ball-footed, glass-fronted carved Victorian oak bookcase home (an eBay steal four years ago and my favourite piece of furniture in the world ever since). I had a plan. I would open it, first to the Rs and then to the Cs. Then I'll know. Maybe.

"RESOLUTION > Noun. (1) a firm decision to do or not to do something: she kept her resolution not to see Anne any more ¦ a New Year's resolution."

"COMMITMENT > (1) the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause or activity: the company's commitment to quality ¦ I could not fault my players for commitment."

Of course, in a tome that large, there are other definitions for each--but these are the first definitions listed so they'll do for my purposes.

My conclusion? I have actually done both this year with regard to my writing. I have made a firm decision to move forward with writing goals I've held for a long time (complete two novels and several other smaller pieces I've begun) AND I have completely dedicated myself to that activity with a series of completed or planned actions (leaving paid employment with my husband's support; networking with other writers; taking a writing course; JanNoWriMo to follow NaNoWriMo success, etc).

This was a good exercise for me. It may explain why I've not completed other long-term goals. I think I'll look at the rest of the non-list of unresolved items in my mind (and Outlook Task List) and see whether I have both of the elements I need to make them realities.

Happy New Year. May all your resolutions find commitment--and success--in 2011.