Monday, 29 April 2019

I Wrote a Book In 3.5 Weeks

   Yup, you read that right. It's true that it's not one of my 600-page monsters, but to get it done not only under a year, but under a month, and done well, shows that I've been doing something wrong.
   It's true that I let Camp NaNoWriMo take over my life from the moment I rose (I would usually spend my mornings doing other things like Etsy work or research or other fun things before my workout, then work on book stuff from midday to 11pm), but it also gave me the best opportunity to experiment with writing - from the creative to the technical.
   When I work on my trilogy, I tend to pace myself. But I also tend to try to get it down perfectly on the first draft, which leads to a lot of time spent staring out of the window thinking, then daydreaming. There's nothing at all wrong with taking a moment to think, but when all you have to work with for the contents of a whole chapter is 3 paragraphs written in the master book plan, you're hobbling yourself.
   "Get the words down - they don't have to be good, just get them down." This is the premise of NaNo. And I have issue with it. It sounds like you can just bullshit your way through; write utter drivel and call it a success. That's just wasted time, in my eyes. And while I still hold true to that angle, I did gradually realise what it actually meant: do your best, but don't fret. Because, despite my best efforts over the years, even I learned long ago that your first draft of everything is going to suck. That's why you redraft.

   This was probably the most valuable opportunity of my NaNo experience. I found a way to write quickly, albeit with personal pressure, but also well. I would draft out each chapter in note form - no prose, just 'and then and then and then'. That meant that, instead of it taking me 3 days to write 10 pages, I got their every detail noted down in about 3 hours, and then I could go back to the start and turn it into prose. I could get 10 pages done in literally half the time. And it all flowed really well, and I was more comfortable with what I was writing.
   No, I never really did shake my compulsive edit-as-I-write habits. They died down for a while, but if I wasn't happy with a paragraph or so in the prose phase, I would work at it until it was fixed. And if I wasn't happy with a whole chapter (or in this case each chapter is its own short story, contributing to the overall tale), I would read it back through and adjust it where it needed it.
   And yet, I still got a 150 page book down in 3.5 weeks, even with a slow start.

   The second most valuable opportunity NaNo provided was that in which I could put all I'd learned from The Art of Storytelling to work. He'd held a lesson on short stories, and certainly every word of that was ringing in my head all month.
• short stories are the best opportunity to experiment with voices
• they're the best opportunity to experiment with ideas that might not work with a full book
• they're a great opportunity to meet characters
• they could spark a story of their own
• the best short stories are the final chapters of books you didn't write (given how my short stories all came together to tell a single over-arcing story, this didn't apply)
• they're stories that can take you to another world and still be home in time for tea.
• in a book, lots of things have to happen; in a short story, only one thing does. And it doesn't have to be big.

   It was all a bit of a stress, but I'm so happy I did it. It was a personal project, a story I really wanted to know - not to share, or anything like that; it was for my benefit, and I knew it would help the planning for the last book in the trilogy. While my books focus on humans, this project was from the wildlings' perspective - the creatures that live in forests, all inspired by Scandinavian folklore - and focused on how they handled a certain even that spans from the end of book 2 and into a good chunk of book 3. I've been able to flesh them out more, as well as their queen, and when they come to having their moment of glory in the third book, I now have a much better idea of how that will go.
   I wasn't going to bother writing it at all, I preferred to just work on the third book, but I knew that if I didn't do it before I started writing book 3, it wouldn't be done at all. And when I was alerted to the existence of Camp NaNoWriMo by Gamer Mum Chronicles (I had thought it was NaNo in November and that was all), I figured I was in the best position to try. What was one month? If I didn't finish by the end of April, so be it. I would at least have a better idea even if I only got as far as planning out the sequence of events.
   I took 2 weeks to plan it before Camp started, and I got to work on April 1st. My word count goal (having never tracked words before) was 15,000. I adjusted it to 20,000 on the 13th when it was clear I was going to smash it too soon. Then I hit that 20,000 word count goal two days later.
   I finished writing the whole thing on the 24th with a word count, somehow, of 38,815. I've already been back over it making edits to words left in bold that needed revisiting. But I finished that on the 27th, and now I'm just sitting on it before redrafting it, which I'm going to do in May.

   May is going to be a busy month, but it should be my last busy writing month before I finally get back into a consistent flow. In January, I finished writing book 2 and then started redrafting it. I was then accepted to work on a book of short stories with Frenone, which I worked on between my redrafting. In February I started a writing course, and worked on those short stories. I finished redrafting at the beginning of March, and finished the final story for Frenone's book, and then immediately got to planning out the third book, as well as making adjustments to The Zi'veyn's book cover and starting work on the second's. Two weeks later I decided to embark on the above Camp NaNo project and put two weeks aside for planning that out instead, and then on April 1st I moved on to writing it, which I finished on the 24th and then edited for the following 3 days. For the next 4, I'm working on book covers again.
   May's work is going to consist of redrafting these short stories, because I'm very proud of them, and then I might decide to publish them, which means I'll need beta readers to tell me if it works. I wanted it to be enjoyed by people who haven't read The Zi'veyn or any of The Devoted trilogy, so I left a lot of details out (not difficult, given the perspective of the book), but I also want it to be enjoyed by those who have. I'm also going to be revising the first 5 chapters of The Zi'veyn before submitting them to literary agencies following feedback I've received, and also work on finalising the plan for book 3 (which was in a near-complete state in March, and why I decided I could afford to set it aside for NaNo), and then I'm also going to finish working on the cover for book 2. It's going to be a long month.
   Fortunately, the first week of May is going to be a much-needed and much-anticipated break. Unsurprisingly, I have some typing-related injuries, so I'll be glad to rest that up.
   But more on all that later...

   My hope is to start writing book 3 in June. Then, finally, I'll be back into a regular flow with my to-do list all checked off. I also won't feel like I have to write as fast as I did this past month, so hopefully these hand/elbow/shoulder injuries won't reappear too quickly. I might also consider enforcing a day off. But...what would I do?! The thought is, genuinely, kind of scary to be honest.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Neil Gaiman's 'The Art of Storytelling' Masterclass Course Review

   I used to be quite an arrogant writer. Not in the sense that I was boastful or believed my work to be amazing, but rather in the sense that I thought all I needed was time and practise. I thought there was nothing I could be taught, so I never wanted to waste my time on writing courses because I believed I already knew all there was to know and that I didn't need the training - especially when an average writer's workshop cost £400+ online and even more in person. Why would I spend money to be taught things I'd already learned?
   Well, when I was about 21, I realised that it wasn't arrogance. It was fear. I was afraid of taking a writing course and being told I was doing everything wrong. I was afraid that everything I'd already spent 9 years learning and practising was wrong. And I didn't have £400 to spend on a writing course.
   So, I ended up floating around with that insecurity sitting right upon my shoulder, and it got worse when I sent my first submission to agents and publishers - my 23rd finished story - only for it to be rejected. I gave up writing, then, for about 6 months. It was only an insatiable passion that drew me back, and I decided then that I wanted to learn after all, regardless of the fear.  But I still had no money, and whenever I looked at the courses they were always technical - how to plan, learning genre, even learning how to use punctuation. There was little storytelling in it, it was just technical writing that, in some cases, even featured classes in the curriculum for journalism and things like that. It just seemed either too vague or filled with things I genuinely could already do.

   Well, I continued to write and to submit over the 7 years that followed that realisation because I refused to let it cripple me, and I knew I'd gradually learn as I continued to write and continued to read others' work. But money never changed - I had a good year in my Etsy shop at Christmas in 2017 when I probably could have afforded one, but my husband and I had a £500 wedding (no, there are no zeros missing) the following spring and had to set aside for a honeymoon (which we're having later this year). But even then, I'd not found any courses that appealed to me.

   But, a month after being approved to write for Frenone's tarot story book this year, which itself was a massive achievement, I saw mention of a class taught by Neil Gaiman on Masterclass called 'The Art of Storytelling' for £85. My heart leapt into my throat.
   I'd never heard of Masterclass before so I did some digging to make sure it was legit before giving it any serious consideration, but it all checked out.
   Put simply, it was an online school taught by masters in their fields; classes without fees, aside from the one-off payment of £85 which gives you eternal access to the class for the rest of time (unless you choose to pay the yearly £170 subscription fee to get access to all the various creative classes on Masterclass for the duration of the subscription). There are no deadlines, no feedback, and no certificate of completion. All you get out of it is the knowledge, and exercises to help you apply it - in this case, writing exercises.
   But, at the end of the day, it's the knowledge you want. Unless you're a doctor or a specialist, a certificate is an affectation. And it's Neil Gaiman, someone who knows what he's talking about as both a madly successful writer who works in both fiction and fantasy, and as a professor of creative arts at Bard College, New York. Even without feedback, I trust his word and his teaching over some nameless professor with a certificate on the wall and who may well be biased to one genre or another.
   I think I gave it about an hour's thought. But it was already late in the evening, so even with my decision made and my husband urging me to go for it, I still didn't sign up until the next day.
   Then, on February 1st, I dipped into our savings, paid the fee, and began.

Picture admittedly taken on April 18th for the purpose of this post, hence the green beyond and full notebook.

The Course's Structure
   The course consists of 18 classes (and 1 introduction), all of which involve a video of 8 to 28 minutes in length, and a worksheet. The videos are filmed beautifully for Masterclass as though it's a one-on-one lesson. Neil Gaiman sits in a chair in a lovely library and talks to you with a lovely, soothing, writerly voice second only to David Attenborough. He gives you his thoughts on the subjects, which he laid out himself, and talks about how he does things, how other writers he knows do things, how you shouldn't do things, and he's extremely honest and open about it and his experiences, complete with anecdotes.
   He talks sometimes about how frustrating writing can be when the words just won't come out, he talks about the difficulties in planning, and the beauty of it, the joy of worldbuilding and about characters 'talking to you', and that you should listen to them, even have a conversation with them sometimes if you're stuck and see what they say back. It sounds crazy to people who don't write, and even a few writers might scoff at that, but it works. Characters take on a life of their own if you've made them correctly.
   After the video comes the worksheet, which summarises the video and also imparts more wisdom and knowledge, as well as reading suggestions (both stories and technical), and then goes on to offer two types of activities - 'writing exercises' to be done right then, and 'for your novel' exercises so that you can apply what you've learned that day to whatever project you're personally working on. Some classes will have multiple of each, others will have just one; some will take a long time, others won't. But there are no deadlines - you can take as long as you'd like to complete it, and revisit it as many times as you'd like.
   There is a student hub wherein you can find help and feedback from other students on the course, because you submit nothing to be reviewed by Neil or by anyone at Masterclass. It just doesn't work that way, which, I think, is its only failing - you can't know for sure if you've really understood. But if you did submit, it would be a lot more work on their part (because, no doubt, it wouldn't go straight to Mr Gaiman), and that would certainly jack up the price and put the knowledge from the whole course out of reach.

What Are The Lessons?
   There is a list of the lessons on the sign-up page so you can see what you're getting into before paying, but, put simply, these lessons don't cover punctuation, paragraphing or any technical writing stuff like that. It's about storytelling. It doesn't focus on genre, either, so it's all perfectly viable to every fiction writer of every kind. It's all about how to tell a good story, in writing - including comics.
   There is only one lesson on comics, but it's the longest at 28 minutes. I admit, I have no interest in comics - I don't read them, or even watch movies about them (and yes, I am aware that there are more comic book genres than 'superheroes'). They're just not my thing, and I find them difficult to appreciate. I have the Avatar: The Last Airbender library editions, but I get through that 250 page thing in about half an hour. I just don't know how to read them, and I know that it's lost on me. But, having paid for the course, I decided to watch the video in case there was a relevant pearl of wisdom, then I read the worksheet (though I admit I skipped the writing exercise this one time). There was nothing in there for me, but I did glean some kind of appreciation for the complexities of writing comics. I never thought it was similar to writing a book in the slightest, but even so, there's more to it than I thought.

   The most valuable lessons, for me, were the final few: 'Responsibilities As A Writer', which started with an anecdote that I found, frankly, terrifying, and drove home the point I'd already surmised for myself, and 'Writer's Rules', which covered a little bit of how to submit to publishers and agents, and about striking a balance between humility and the arrogance of a 7-year old to ensure that, when a rejection comes through, you don't roll over and die with it but instead accept that it wasn't perfect while being stubborn enough to keep going and write something that they can't possibly reject. These were all things I needed help on, and while I still feel I need more, I'm a bit more confident with it now.
   The 'Short Stories' lesson, too, was both valuable and pertinent, because I'd never had to write them before this year with the tarot book. And since then, I've suddenly developed an interest in them because I've learned how to write them. Or the theory of it, anyway. 'They're a whole other beast', another writer told me while discussing the tarot book. The lesson came a little late, since I'd already written and submitted one of my two stories to Frenone by that time, but the second - longer and more important, since it accompanies the image of the front cover and summarises the entire tarot deck - benefitted from the lesson hugely. If I'm asked to rewrite the first, I'll be happy to, because I think I could do a much better job now.

How Did I Follow It?
   The classes seem short, but don't be fooled. They're immensely informative. You could technically do them in any order, but some of the writing exercises refer back to previous lessons, and I was doing them chronologically anyway.
   I would do two lessons a week, watching the video first, then reading through the worksheet until I reached a writing exercise which I would then do in a designated notebook, and then continue reading the worksheet until I got to the end, stopping at writing exercises along the way and making note of 'For Your Novel' sections along the way. Then I turned to a fresh page and made notes from the worksheet (and the video sometimes, if there was something in there that I wanted and wasn't quoted). Oh, and the video player has subtitles, so you don't have to miss anything.
   I always left a few days between lessons, and listened to the video again the following day to recap. This changed towards the end when the lessons became less practical and turned towards editing advice and things like that (yes, there's even a class on editing your novel), at which point I did the final three lessons in one day, but I truly feel I absorbed everything given, and making notes helped to ensure that went in. And, if not, I can recap over every single bit of it whenever I need to. One of the few benefits of a video-teacher rather than a human.

   No one is above this class. It's as cheap as rather expensive chips, amazing value, taught by a master who knows his trade and how to teach, and has zero time constraints. I knocked it out comfortably in 7 weeks. I could have done it in 10 days if I'd worked morning and afternoon, but I didn't want to rush. The longest any class took me was 4 hours (lesson 8, 'Story Case Study 'March Tale''), but I was king of distracted that day.
   No, you may not have even £85 lying around, but if you write fiction of any kind, I urge you to consider this class. I was smiling when I finished the last one (and crying a little bit, 'cause I'm cool) and while I was already doing so much of this before the class, all I could think was "I gained so much from this."

Personal Note
   Above all, while I learned a lot, there was one thing I took away from it that I was shocked by: I'm not doing anything wrong at all. There was nothing at all he said that came as a revelation - but there were suggestions on how I could take what I was already doing and make it better. And that means that the nagging insecurity has vanished in a puff of smoke, after I've spent 7 years trying to beat it down with a mallet every time I mention my writing and try to put it in front of someone, knowing I'll never get anywhere otherwise.
   I am now a lot more confident in my skill, and I've learned enough that I think, most crucially, I might be able to approach literary agents and publishers with the information they want. When they ask for my influences, they're not asking "what's in your bookcase?" They're asking "what's in your heart?" And now, I can tell them. And I can write a logline, I can write a more concise synopsis, I can also tell them that, now, I have taken a writing class and I am prepared to learn and to grow.
   I still doubt they'll take my manuscript, but at least I'll know how to approach them now. And I know every writer would feel the same after taking this class.

This post has not been sponsored, endorsed, encouraged or any of the like by anyone tagged, linked or mentioned in this post. I discovered the course on my own, bought it on my own, and took it on my own. All opinions are my own, photographs are my own, and screenshots were taken on my own.
I just really, really think you need to know about it.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Download The Zi'veyn For Free!

It's been a long time - since I last posted and was able to run a promotion like this - but from today until the 26th of April, you can download The Zi'veyn for free on Kindle & the Kindle app! It's available across all Amazon & Kindle stores, just click one of the links below or search 'The Zi'veyn' on your preferred site!

UK   •   Netherlands   •   US   •   Canada

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Sleep. The Best Thing You Did All Night.

   There's always something to do. It could be fun, it could be dull, it could be urgent, or the deadline could be entirely imagined. And yet, if we miss it, it's going to be the worst thing in the world. It's ridiculous, really. And it leads to cutting so many corners, and, worse still, those corners are always the things that matter. Like skipping a proper warm-up or cool-down post-workout, or arriving late to parent-teacher night, or dragging your dog around the park as quickly as you can (I maintain, if you have to find time to give your dog a walk, you shouldn't have a dog). And, worst of all: sleep.
   Staying up late to hit your deadlines and then rising early to get a head-start. Fine, if there's a dissertation hand-in that needs to be met in a week's time. But if this is basically your life, something has to give. And if sleep is the corner you're cutting, the thing that buckles will be your sanity.

Why is sleep so important to your health?
   During sleep, lots of body functions are turned down so that other functions that run in the background while you're awake can do their job more efficiently. Like your computer trying to run updates and things like that during your inactive hours. These are things like repair - your body rebuilds its cells and starts to work on healing injuries or illnesses while you sleep. This isn't limited to exercise, it's your body's basic daily wear and tear - but it does, of course, increase in necessity if you're active. To repair your body properly, it chooses to run these 'programs' while you're not moving around and directing energy elsewhere, and as a result it makes other things less sensitive - like touch, hearing, smell and sight - and also reduces your metabolism because you're not eating. If you start to wake in the night from small noises, your body isn't working properly, quite probably because you've ruined your sleep-cycle with late nights and early rising. This can also contribute heavily towards general bad moods and depression.
   This entire system is managed by chemical changes in your body, the simplest and most relevant of which is the balance between serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin levels increase with exposure to natural light, ie morning time, and kicks your metabolism, mood and nervous system into drive, while melatonin increases when serotonin eases off, and kicks your healing, rejuvenation and natural detoxing systems into drive, which are running on low-power in the background during the day. This is generally why you feel like you've 'reset' the next day if you felt ill or sore the day before. It's also responsible for your circadian rhythm - your body clock, essentially.
   The balance between these two incredibly important chemicals is skewed when our busy days come into play. We rise early with an alarm clock, before our bodies are ready, and often while it's still dark, and we stay up late, using computers, tablets and phones - sending artificial light into our eyes and confusing the release of melatonin - before sleeping for 6 hours.

It's not just a matter of sleep time, but sleep quality.
   If you're in bed at 10 and rise at 6, you probably count that as 8 hours of sleep, right? Well, no. Not if you're waking up every hour or two. If you keep waking, your body can't keep up its nighttime engines. You won't heal, rejuvenate, recover or rest if you're still using your conscious mind, your sight, your hearing, etc. And just the act of waking these systems up will trigger others to follow by default. It takes time to shut them back down and start the others back up. This is more damaging than 6 hours of restful sleep.

   So what can you do? Especially if you're the kind of person who does wake every hour? Well, it's actually quite simple. You need to hold yourself accountable.
   Setting up a simple night-time ritual will help to turn off your over-active mind, aid the release of the right chemicals through relaxation and association, and ease you into sleep, giving you a better 6 hours if that's really all you can spare. You may even find that new nighttime habits gets you to bed a little earlier as a cosy little side-effect.

1. Limit artificial light
This means phones, tablets, computers - electronics, basically. Stop using them 2 hours before bed and read a book instead, go for an evening walk, draw a picture. Do something that doesn't have you staring into a screen, that disconnects you from social media and the anxieties that come with it - whether you notice them or not - and relax.

2. Consider your environment
Cool down. Cooling the air and letting in a fresh flow will help you to fall asleep. The body usually responds better to cooler temperatures. It sucks trying to sleep in the summer, but winter is oh so cosy. So, crack open a window, opt for lighter/low-tog sheets - Julian Charles has a good variety of togs - don't fear the monsters under the bed and stick a foot out, and consider sleeping nude beneath the sheets.

3. Stretch and breathe
A few yoga stretches with some deep breaths before bed helps to calm and slow the mind. If you do this after shutting off your devices, it gives you something to take your mind off of the 'boredom' that comes with having turned your phone off. There's more to life than your phone, social media and work. Take time for you.

4. Don't exercise in the evening
On the other hand, don't take the yoga too far. Consider dinner time the cut-off point for proper exercise, like a dance class, workout or run. You need the fuel to recover from it, anyway.
   When serotonin eases off and melatonin rises, your ability to handle higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) is reduced, and continues to reduce the later it gets. You know how nightmares always seem so scary when you're a kid, but when you think back in the day, they seem silly? Or how niggly things that don't bother you so much in the day suddenly grow into monsters at night? It's because your brain can't handle the stress. This isn't just mental stress, but physical, too. This means that higher levels of cortisol at night also inhibit sleep quality, and if you're trying to lose weight, get fit or build muscle, then having a poor night's sleep after an evening workout is only going to inhibit your results, too.

5. Get some blackout curtains
They're a thicker curtain, or another set of curtains hooked behind your regular ones. They add an extra layer to block out the light, which will aid your melatonin levels at night. This is the best option if you hate wearing sleep masks. I certainly do.

6. Get outside during the day
Melatonin levels improve at night if you got lots of sun during the day. This means getting outside. The exercise and change of scenery will do your general mood wonders, too.

7. Have a warm drink before bed
Warm milk doesn't actually contribute to a good night's sleep. The levels of melatonin and tryptophan in a glass of warm milk are far too low to make a difference. Instead, it's the act of having that warm drink and the relaxation that goes with it that helps to prepare the body for sleep. But it is still high in fats and protein, which the body puts to use at night to repair the body.

Do you already have a night-time ritual that helps you get to sleep? 
For me it's simple: turn off devices, have a stretch, then clamber in bed and read a book for an hour, with a cup of sleepy tea. I'm loving Bird & Blend's 'Dozy Girl' right now.
If I fall asleep with a cup half-full, then I fall asleep with a cup half-full.

Disclaimer: this is a collaborative post. All research was my own.