Refresh the plot

Like kill your darlings, refreshing your plot is just as vital. In this post I cite two examples, a draft novel and short story. The novel received feedback that led me to rethink sequence of events and reinforce particular themes in the story. An indirect result was that I rethought a short story, and had the insight to reorganise a stagnant plot. This highlights the importance of critiquing and feedback, and particularly taking that feedback as a positive opportunity even if it appears negative.

Embracing criticism

I’m a social worker, so by the very nature of my practice I should embrace critical thinking. In reality, I don’t like accepting fallibility, so I hate having new perspectives introduced, even though I aboslutely need them. It’s very much a love/hate relationship.

So it is with writing then, that I need to get new perspective, put myself out there. I have written about the power of critiquing before. It’s a process that can be awkward and difficult, but so rewarding. 

Recently I sent out sections of my first draft novel to a critique group. Their feedback was in depth and thorough, and provided me with the external, from-the-outside-looking-in perspective I needed. There were many errors I made – some I might never have noticed, others schoolboy type errors (two characters with names so similar the critique group thought they were a typo and the same person!).  Nonetheless, after giving myself a kick in backside I needed, I was also pleased to get the responses. It energised me and gave new direction.

Here’s the interesting thing though, not only is critique in itself a useful process, but it’s a type of writing exercise that I have found I can develop over time. What I mean is, I am becoming more conscious of common errors I made in the past, which inhibit the story, and I’m able to correct these before the work ever comes before any external perspective. It helps minimise errors, and provide focus where it is needed, on the finer detail. 

This doesn’t negate the need for a critique of course – this process is VITAL for writing – but it does help develop my writing, so below I give two examples. The first is the lessons I drew from the novel I put forward. The second is a short story that, having reflected on the critique process, I have begun to rewrite extensively.

Bastion

Bastion is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year. It’s story about a group of hunters that live with their tribe in the desert. There are lots of these tribes and they are ruled over by floating fortresses called Bastions. After witnessing a devastating attack on these once seemingly indestructible castles, and the resulting destruction of their tribe, the hunters are forced to flee on an adventure that opens a new perspective of their world and a fresh understanding of the Bastions and the reality of their lives.

The chapters I put forward for critique were the first chapters. This was a deliberate choice. The first chapters set the tone and the story to follow. They also contained some of the most pertinent moments to introduce the central characters. 

The feedback I received from my writing companions boiled down down to some standard themes – too many characters introduced too quickly, unclear motivations for the characters beyond simple survival, too much repetitive actions and sequences, staid dialogue. Although it wasn’t mentioned so specifically, I also took from it that the events themselves weren’t effective at moving the story forward (or boring, as people might say.

The benefit of this, so early on in the process, is huge. As I start to rewrite I can measure against expectation throughout the whole book. I’ve gone back to basics in many respects, trying to sift through what makes a story interesting and distinctive, against something prosaic and cliched. Rethinking whole sequences can be difficult, but it’s a necessary way forward. I think of it like drawing a map from memory, and forgetting the various pitfalls and challenges that you take for granted, but an external observer would not know about. THey travel the path using the map, but find all kinds of delays and deadends. When you think about it, it seems natural that these are issues, but over familiarity breeds contempt as they say. 

Darken Path

An indirect benefit was to reconsider the plot line for a short story I wrote (which has now been three years in the making…ugh!). 

Woman being chased by a mob, flees into haunted forest, trapped by daemon – simple plot. 

This story suffered from too sharp a contrast between early fast paced flow, and then sudden stop and slower pace in the second half of the story. Taking on board the feedback for Bastion helped give me focus on this short story. Now I’m in the middle of re-writing the whole middle section, to give a greater flow to the plot and drive the characters forward a bit more. Maybe I might have realised this change in the future, but it was the critique that set of my train of thought. 

Hopefully as I review other work and start new stories, this will become more second nature. Think about the basics early on, rather than writing something at any cost. It pays to take time to think about what is happening, what I’m doing, and why. With hope, my writing will become stronger, and it will be because I’m willing to take critical feedback to improve my work.

Advertisements

The Art of Rest: the importance of rest and healthy working principles for your writing

Writing is a rewarding art form, interest and activity, but it is susceptible to stress and tensions like anything else. There are some simple strategies to help recharge your batteries, find an environment conducive to productive writing, and importantly give yourself permission to rest once in a while.

Stress isn’t just work bound

I took a long weekend off the other week and pretty much did nothing the whole time, including writing. I opted for a cruisey weekend to replenish my batteries and relax. To rest properly I needed to detach myself from anything looking like ‘work’. I did very little the whole weekend. I didn’t feel guilty about it – I just wanted some rest and that included from writing.

Writing, like many outside interests, can be like work. We can take it for granted in many respects; usually with artistic ventures you are your own boss, no team to worry about, choice of working environment. In truth though, the application of work principles applies just as much to artistic ventures.

Stress isn’t work bound. It can occur anywhere. Writing might be a side interest or it might be a full time gig, but it’s just as prone to stress, tension and fatigue as anything else. In fact, there’s some speculation that writer’s block is the product of the depression. The importance of looking after yourself is just as applicable to considerations of writing as it is work.

If you’re into writing, you won’t just consider it a chore. It must serve a better purpose. It certainly needs emotional value. The problem though is that its potential is utterly dependent on yours. If you start to flag, for any reason, chances are the writing will flag too.

Getting rest is important to recharge and rejuvenate. It helps provide creative fuel. Of course, you need to be disciplined about it. It’s all too easy to say that you’re resting when in fact what you’re doing is procrastinating. That shouldn’t detract from the need to take a break, just be mindful of it.

Self-awareness about your stressors and triggers helps immensely here. Be conscious of how you’re tracking and the warning signs. You might even find that these indicators appear through leisure long before they manifest at work. This all helps keep your writing on an even keel, and get rest when it’s needed.

A healthy environment 

Rest isn’t the only consideration here. When writing, consider the factors that make for a more positive work experience. You’re in a fortunate position because you have a great deal of control over your time, planning, priorities and environment. 

Choose a place with lots of natural light. I can’t over emphasise this enough. Where I work, I am stuck in a windowless office with virtually no access to natural light. I have to leave the office building to get some. I would give a lot for a window, even if the view was relatively mundane.

Keep yourself warm. You don’t want to be stifling, but make sure you are comfortably warm to work without distraction. 

Speaking of comfort, make sure you’ve a comfortable chair. Keep moving and stretch periodically.

Break up your work – Pomodoro technique is fantastic for this. Have a separate activity for those spare moments, so that you are not distracted. Keep off the internet for the duration of the whole session. If you write something and realise you need to research something to make the scene work, take a note and move on. You can complete that research another time.

Set the tone of the location as to what works best for you. What this means is, if you know you work better with classical music over, say, pop music, then that’s what you play. If you know that you get too distracted with music don’t play it. Work to your strengths, not a romantic ideal. Coffee shops are interesting ones – I hear lots of things to say that they conducive to good writing because of the background noise. For me, I’m not so sure, because it’s not the type of background noise I savour. I also find the coffee very strong in coffe houses and I’d feel compelled to keep purchasing things to justify my presence there, so it would be quite expensive. All in all I find coffee shops exhausting because they’re so busy. I guess my point here is to ignore the romanticism that is often applied to the idea of the writer, and instead apply what works best, for you. If you love coffee shops for writing then go for it.

We all get ill

People get ill. It’s a fact of life. We suffer from physical and mental illness. The reality though is that as a society we are really poor at managing illness. There’s a long standing stigma associated with mental health, and many misconceptions about how we can simply shrug these things off. Even with physical health though, we apply poor standards. How often do we have colleagues coming into work with a cold, potentially infecting the whole office? Many employers don’t offer paid sick leave, forcing low paid workers to struggle into work even though they are clearly unfit.

The point I’m making here is not to allow this societal form of employment masochism to impact on your writing. If you’re ill then recover and rest. Don’t force yourself to write because chances are you won’t be that productive. Give yourself permission to lay off the writing. 

If you’re worried about getting your grove back, then consider a set plan to re-build momentum. We suffer lots of unintended setbacks or delays of one kind or another, so having provision for delays in general is a good thing.

Ultimately, writing is a process like any other. You benefit from organised routine, and have the right environment to work in. Being aware of the impact of stress, and taking appropriate action to minimise it, will deliver benefits. Most of all, give yourself permission to rest, recharge body and brain, because in the longer term you’ll gain more for your writing.

How Reading Can inform the Writing Process

Last weekend I managed to finish three books I had been reading at the same time. I don’t mean Data-like abilities to process information simultaneously. No, I started one book, hadn’t finished it before I started another, and then, just for kicks, thought ‘fuck it I’ll read another.’ Finally they converged to all end at the same time. Quite an achievement (it’s not really – procrastination can surface anywhere).

Books are fuel for the brain. They are not the only source of creative energy. Artwork, music, exercise, healthy food, passion, narcotics (obviously legal ones…) are all means to get the creative juices flowing. Books are great for writers though. They provide so many benefits. Last week, I wrote about the different kinds of books and how they might help the writing process. In this session I am more thinking about their overall benefit in how they stimulated me artistically, but also gave me ideas for my own writing.

AD 500 by Simon Young

This is a fictional mock-factual-historical novel, about a group of Greeks travelling the British Isles in 500AD. It was a great read about the different ways of life in each part of the isles, and decline of the Celts as the Saxons began to take over. At this point in time, there are many influences in the British Isles, leading to a rich description of culture and society.

From a narrative point of view, the Greeks take a winding journey up rom the south, through Ireland, Scotland and then back through England. There’s little over-arching ‘story’ or characters, but the gradual decline of the Celts and the hint of Saxon dominance is the main theme I think. 

From a writing point of view, I don’t think it necessarily aided in structure, but it helped provide some sense of the depth needed in description. The author had done his research, so the descriptions of events and local customs is highly detailed. I actually had an idea for a alternative-history novel set in a similar time, and this book was supposed to be the foundation of the background research. It left me with some pretty big questions about how much research I would need to do first, and the scale of the different cultures even in such a small area of land. 

Starswarm by Brian Aldiss

This was an ageing paperback I’ve had on my shelves for some time. It’s actually a collection of short stories, which are ostensibly given a connecting theme (each story relates to a part of a collection of star systems called the Starswarm). In truth, these stories had little connecting them, and the theme seemed more of a contrivance, rather than serving any narrative function.

As science-fiction stories go they were intriguing and well developed. Brian Aldiss is a famed science-fiction writer, so I expected nothing less. They raised interesting posits about existence, and human life (particularly being set so far into the future). 

I must admit I was quite interested in the micro detail. The structure of sentences and formulation of the action. This is the kind of detail I struggle with, particularly in first drafts. I want to get to a point where this sort of thing is second nature in a first draft, because it’s this detail more than anything else that causes delays and slows me down. 

It also helped with the breakdown of different characters and providing distinctiveness. This is another area I struggle with. Aldiss clearly gave some thought to his characters, even though these were short stories. I wasn’t left wondering about who was who, or felt they lacked an edge or depth. Very effective.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Now this classic was a challenge. Partly on account of the central chacter’s using ‘Nadsat‘ (although easier to understand than you might think), but also because I had seen the film already. I didn’t really like the film, and there was little in the novel that made me want to watch again or reconsider the story. I got the premise and theme, but the story seemed remarkably uncomplex compared to its potential. Then again, maybe I’m viewing it with the reader’s desires, rather than the author’s intent. It’s not like Burgess was trying to showcase a dystopian future in detail and failing, simply that he focused on other matters.

Indeed, that may be a strength, in that the dystopian future is implied, rather than specific. It may even be, that beyond the selfish world of the main characters, the wider world continues much as normal. Beyond that though it left me cold. I had a similar reaction to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Maybe some books do it and some don’t.

In terms of my writing, what struck me was theme and how consistently Burgess applied it. He maintained the narrative without getting sidetracked with irrelevant actions or uncessary diversions. It’s a lesson in conciseness. Some books (particularly fantasy) can become grotesquely overlong and bloated to maintain narrative. Any kind of theme disappears, and even the story telling can become lazy if the author relies on reader familiarity to make the story continue (that is, the story is no longer compelling, just the question of what the character is doing in a particular place). 

Maybe a classic novel like ACO should entice me more, but then again everything is in the eye of the beholder. It was compelling enough that I read to the end, but not so much it has become life changing. Then again, if it helps propel change in my own writing perhaps it will turn out to be quite important.

That may be the power of books. Seemingly inconsequential in many respects, but having an impact that may take many years to come to fruition. I’ve already started on my next novel – The Walls of Byzantium by James Heneage – and I’m a third of the way through that already. It has a nice intensity of story and character without being too complex. An easy read, but very much in the grain of a novel I’m working on. The more I read the richer I become, and after prolonged spurts barely reading any fiction, it’s good to be delving back into it again.

Write a book in 8 minutes…(a day)

Don’t have time to write? Think again. Some people set aside hours each day – lucky buggers – while others cram in maybe a couple of 30 minute blitz sessions. A few might just manage one such session. What they all have in common is that they write everyday, and they manage to organise their day to fit in their writing. They can do it, so what’s stopping you? You don’t even need 30 minutes. Write for just 8 minutes a day and you’ll have a novel within a year.

How 8 minutes a day equals a novel

We live busy lives, inundated with demands on time like work, family, social media and a myriad of distractions we’re told we need for some abstract purpose of marketing conformity. It might be easy to think we can’t manage to fit in artistic and creative ‘luxuries’ like writing.

The truth is if you want to be a writer you’ve got to write. It takes time to write, so you have ensure you fit in enough time each day to get something written. 

8 minutes a day. What are you doing each day that means you can’t spare 8 minutes?

Why 8 minutes you ask? Well, simple maths.

Imagine your typing speed is a sedate 30 words a minute. After 8 minutes that’s 240 words. Mulitiply 240 by 365 = 87600

Eighty seven thousand six hundred words. 

That’s a novel. 

That’s a short story anthology. 

It’s a few novellas. 

Just 8 minutes a day. 

Forget the romanticism of writing; these idea of lazy days writing thousands of words, taking long walks to boost your creative flow, and leisurely rewrites and edits of what you’ve done.

If you’re independently wealthy or already a successful writer, you might have that luxury. Most don’t. So 8 minutes a day is the best you might be able to summon.

Keeping a Routine

Now there are some realistic issues here. 

It can be difficult to get yourself going for the sake of 8 minutes. I find a five minute warm-up write does wonders, but then I fit in longer writing sessions anyway. So you need to get a habit going to seize that energy. This is about routine, selecting the same time each day to write. 

Maybe add a bit extra to your work time if you drive – write for eight minutes in your car when you arrive, or before you leave. Public transport? If your journey is longer than 8 minutes it’s sorted.

However you do it, turn it into a routine and keep doing it.

Keeping the flow going

There’s also a question of narrative flow. Inevitably it is easier to write a stream of events or even a single event when you have more time.8 minutes might challenge you to keep that flow going.

Having a good sense of structure or planning ahead can help. Planning each week can help provide the impetus you need to write an hour a week (8×7=56).

If you’re reading this thinking there’s no way 8 minutes is viable for focused writing, then I’d ask “what about 15 minutes? Is that really stretching it?” That’d be even more advantageous – nearly double the amount or half the time (6 months instead of a year).

My point here is that time is pliable if you’re willing to make accommodations. If you accept that usually writing a novel isn’t a quick process then you surely accept the capacity to spend a year on writing your book, short stories etc.

It’s not enough to claim there’s no time. You have the means, with some organisational effort, to contribute a little bit each day to making a writing project come together. For even a short spell and minor sacrifice, you can find the time to make it happen.

Blog Writing: the Neverending War of Time, Organisation, Priorisiting, and Managing Expectations

Writing seems like an endless journey of organisation and reorganisation these days. It’s too easy to say that there aren’t enough hours in the day, and in fact this would be untrue. What matters is the organisation of time, prioritising my blog, and managing my own expectations. 

Organising Time

Faced with the resumption of university, I can now take an intelligent guess as to where a lot of my time is going to be used up for the next few months. It’s easy to take an instinctive reaction and retreat from writing, but I did that before, and I reckon I paid a price for it. In fact, my last retreat had nothing to do with university. Becoming overly focused on a NaNoWriMo project, I ended up finding my time being all spent on that, even after November, and simply decided to ignore my blog. There was no particular reason why that should happen, but I figured I wouldn’t have time to write the blog. Without testing the hypothesis, I simply stopped. Now, months later, and I’m still struggling to reorganise everything to get back into a regular habit of writing each day.

Time is finite, which is fortunate, because you know how much there is going to be. Time is also, conveniently, organised for us, into 24 hour blocks to make days, and 7 days in a week (well, in Western society anyway). Assuming one is sleeping an average amount of eight hours a day, that leaves 16 waking hours each day to do something. 16. I should be able to fit something in there. I won’t reflect too much on this topic of time right now – I’m actually going to cover it later in the week. The point I’m making here is that if you know there are a fixed number of hours in a day, you have structure as to how you organise your daily writing.

For me, this means considering where my free slots of activity are. These are generally points where I’m not working on something. I should be able to find spare time in there to write a blog post. 

Managing Expectations

Another thing to consider is how much I write. I did a quick check of Chuck Windig’s excellent blog Terribleminds. One blog post, that didn’t seem particularly lengthy, was about 250 words. Another was 1000 words, and that was a lengthy piece about healthcare in the US (good reason to write longer). Even so, 1000 words is not particularly epic in the grand scheme of things – maybe 40-50 minutes of straight writing. 

The point I’m making here is that it isn’t necessary to write lengthy polemics for every blog post, so I shouldn’t set the bar that high. Do I really need to write hundreds and hundreds of words, if just a few paragraphs will do? I know I’ve started on subjects and become dismayed that they only fill a few blocks of text. In retrospect, I should fixate less on the length and more the breadth of the subject matter (…now there’s a double entendre I realise, but I’m sure you get my point).

Prioritising my Blog

So, my new approach is to plan out the subjects ahead of time, create the draft articles with a few notes for basic structure, and then complete over the course of the week. A single spurt of text, and a re-write, shouldn’t require a great deal of time, and by managing my expectations of my work (i.e. How long it needs to be), it should still allow for me to complete the other stuff that needs doing (like studying for example).

I already go to a writers group each week, so that provides for fiction writing time. With some reorganisation at a weekend, I can do similar then, interspersing with my university studies. It should be a nice counterbalance to my academia to have some fictional writing highways to travel. 

I won’t deny, I’ve been here before. I am a perennial planner and re-planner – called procrastination in some quarters – and this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to restructure my writing strategy. On the other hand, I reckon I’ve become better about this stuff these days than I used to. I’ve always reflected on how, at work, my day is well organised and work completed on time. Somehow I have yet to bridge that gap between work place efficiency and general efficiency in my life. They shouldn’t be that different in honesty.

It’s about getting into the habit of writing. Like exercise, making it a daily ritual. This week I have four more subjects planned to cover the other week days. The key will be creating five new ones in time for next week. Small steps, but they’ve got to be made.

Literary superfood versus literal garbage – how to keep the creative juices flowing

It’s a struggle these last few days. My brain feels dry. Like a giant leech has sucked the very essence of creative juices from my mind. It’s a sign of tiredness maybe, but it’s also a sign, I think, of not reading.

Now let’s be clear. I read. A lot. My life is an endless stream of report reading, news, Twitter feed and amusing 30 second videos on Facebook…no, wait, I think I diverted there. Dogs on mops. That’s what’s amusing (see, I didn’t even have to issue the rhetorical question to lead you into the answer).

No, I read. The trouble is, I don’t read enough of the right stuff. Reading is like eating. There are healthy superfoods, reasonably healthy, a little naughty, and downright garbage. 

Healthy superfoods, in reading, are the classic greats, not just oldies like Dickens, but new blood like whoever won the Booker Prize in 1965. What’s that you say? There was no Booker Prize in 1965? Oh, well, OK, 1975 then (it was around by then surely). There are non-fiction too, the kind of books that completely absorb you and drive into a philosophical journey of epic proportions, traveling the imagination highway at warp fucking 9. ‘Give me more Mister Crusher!’ yells Picard. ‘Give me more!!’ (Being a Star Trek TNG fan I must hold up my hands and admit that was never in any episode, but I’m sure it probably appeared in some form of fan fiction, depending on how you read it).

Reasonably healthy are the decent reads, the measured oddities that don’t quite reach greatness but keep us intrigued, interested and draw us in I like to class lesser known fiction by well known writers. For example, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is for me like kale. Cook kale in the right way and it’s delicious and healthy, read In Cold Blood the right way and it’ll do the same for your brain. His other novels though, like Summer Crossing, they’re more like chicken. Healthy in many respects, but cooked in the wrong way probably have some drawbacks. Not many though, chicken is awesome. You could just eat chicken, but you need something like kale otherwise you’ll get scurvy. OK, maybe not that bad. There are other foods out there that are nutritious and healthy without being ‘superfoods’. I guess though you set the bar lower for yourself if you don’t indulge in what’s best for you.

Slightly naughty, now there’s something. Chocolate. Tastes delicious, but death. Bacon, it’s as bad as smoking but it’s soooo good. So what fits in here? Well, it’s the slightly crappy novels that have some semblance of story, and character, but really they just go through the motions and you’re looking for simple trash you can enjoy. Here I might mention books of my youth like the Belgariad, or Dragonlance. Enjoyable fantasy romps (except Tanis – fucking shave you moping dick, it’s obvious you want to), but not exactly breaking literary barriers.

And the garbage. That’s Twitter. That’s news. That’s Facebook. It would also be Fifty Shades of Grey, but i haven’t read that so cannot comment (It’s utter shit – read Twilight because it’s the same story, and then read some Black Lace for all the “fifty shades of fucked up” FSOG will do you). 

But Twitter? News? How can these be so bad? I hear you cry. Well it’s simple. These things can be stimulating in a way, like a McDonalds Cheeseburger fills an empty spot in your stomach, but creatively it’s dead weight. Thinking Twitter develops your creativity is like thinking watching Naughty Lesbo Nurses 9 builds professional team building skills. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter and it can be stimulating – Donald Trump (senior AND junior) is keeping me quite occupied at the moment – but for my creative needs it’s not doing it.

So, I’m not reading. Not really. I still haven’t finished A Clockwork Orange, and at the same time I’m trying to finish off an entertaining faux factual book about some Greeks travelling in Britain and Ireland during the Dark Ages called 500 AD (it’s a ripping yarn, as Michael Palin would say). None of this is building good foundation for boosting my mind. I need some fiction; something structured and in depth. My penchant for reading recently has been for non-fiction, but everything I’m writing is practically fiction. I need better stimulation.

So yes, reading is important. It’s a type of energy that the brain needs. I exercise the brain through thinking, contemplating, wondering, and wandering (in my mind, not physically aimless because I have Googlemaps). Good food for the brain is critical. So I will set myself the goal of finishing Clockwork Orange and 500AD this weekend, and then start to rejuvenate myself with some solid fiction reading. 

I’m stuck on writing. Solution? Random short story.

Yesterday was a real struggle to get something together for my blog, and today’s no different. In search of some material I have opted for a random word generator to produce some kind of guide as to what to write. The story is short – I need to complete by the end of my train journey. That’s little room for planning or organisation or even too much editing, and I’m issuing a caution about language and content, so buckle in kids it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Four words are: band, mould, wriggle, ferry.

Gavin’s eyes roamed the cabin. Not literally of course, that would be insane. Roaming eyes, but the owner still sees out of them. Gavin had a new idea for a song. Being in a band, travelling to Tasmania for a series of gigs, Gavin was desperate for something to fill out their repertoire. Despite assurances to the organisers, they only had a few original songs to play. They needed inspiration.

Returning to the roaming eyes, Gavin caught sight of some mould on the wall, Gavin gave his nose a wriggle. Disgusting. It was bad enough being in a four bed cabin with three other male death metal performers. Good thing it was non-smoking; there was enough methane in the room to power South Australia.

The ferry rocked and vibrated.

“Fuck.” Said Pedro – real name Peter, but, you know, nicknames… – sitting up. “Maybe we hit something.”

“Mmphhh mmmh.” Said Danny, lying prone face down in his bunk. Gavin was inclined to agree.

“What?” Said Pedro. “I can’t understand you doucheface.”

Danny turned his head slightly.

“Stop worrying. Let me sleep.” He uttered.

“This boat isn’t safe.” Said Pedro.

“You’re the one that wanted to come by boat and not fly.” Said Steven, directly below Gavin.

“That would be way more dangerous.” Said Pedro.

The boat shuddered, and for a moment Gavin felt a queasy vibration in his stomach. Sea sick or hungry? Gavin opted for the later, and with a neat twist sat up on the edge of his bunk, legs dangling over the side. He jumped down, stumbling a little with the swaying motion of the boat.

“Any food left?” He said, glancing over at the collection of half-eaten savoury snacks.

“Hear.” Said Steven, passing him a bag of crisps.

“Where were you keeping that?”

“Who knows?” Said Steven. “People go there and never return. But they produce nice crisps.”

“Shit crisps.” Murmured Danny. He was falling asleep again.

Gavin opened the packet and munched a handful. Salt and vinegar. Great, now he’s need something to drink.

“We need some song ideas.” Said Gavin.

“What the fuck?” Said Steven. “Why?”

“I thought we could expand our routine.” 

“We just worked on some” said Pedro.

“Yeah, we need more.” Said Gavin.

“We have enough songs.” Said Steven. “Why do you want more?”

There was just the slightest hint of suspicion in Steven’s voice.

“We have Reguritate Cats Vomit on Your Mother’s Corpse.”

“Yes.”

S”Anal Fisting Angels in Heaven, Hammer Fuck to the Face, Napalm Scrotum, Deep Throat Zombie Jizz.”

At each title, Steven counted off on fingers.

“We’ve got enough dude.”

“We may need more.” Said Gavin. “I made promises.”

“What kind of promises?” Said Pedro, peering up at Gavin. 

A long snore drifted out from Danny’s bunk.

“I promised five gigs.”

“What!?” 

“What fuck you mean?” Said Steven. Gavin always knew when Steven became anxious because he started talking like a Neanderthal. 

“Five gigs in Tasmania?”

“Yeah. Five.” Said Gavin.

“It’s Tasmania. Fuck we’d be lucky to do five in Sydney.”

“Some bikie meet apparently. We’ll get paid more.”

Gavin reflected that he should probably have mentioned that part earlier.

“And you want one more song?”

“Well, let’s start with one and see where it takes us.”

“Any ideas?”

Gavin thought for a moment and looked about the cabin. His eyes rested on the mould. He smiled.

“Mouldy roaming eyes double-p your girlfriend.”

Steven and Pedro looked at each other. Pedro shrugged.

“Okay.” Said Steven. “But you’re writing the lyrics.”

Gavin held up his hands, in a show of acquiescence.

“Cool.” He said. “Now, what was your girlfriends name again?”

Light and composition – enjoying the fundamentals of photography with 35mm point & shoot camera

Wherever you sit on the photography spectrum – amateur or professional, film or digital – there are two fundamentals to how we take a photo; light and composition. It’s easy to get distracted with an array of settings and functions, and sometimes just limiting your choices can help set your creativity that little bit freer. 

Equipment and Preparation

One of my favourite past times is to go out and just take photos. I probably put in a little planning before deciding on a destination, but it doesn’t have to be some complex journey. On one occasion I just walked from my house to the city centre, taking photos as I went. Roadtrips are good, and traipsing along country paths. The great thing about photography is that location is easy, because you can take photographs anywhere.

It has been a while since I was out taking photos, and I’d planned for a little while to go out one afternoon and take some film shots. Wanting more of a challenge, I opted for a point and shoot camera, my Yashica MF-2 Super. The benefits of this camera are its limited controls. Shutter speed is constant. The aperture only alters depending on whether the flash setting is selected or not. The lens is fixed, so there’s no control over depth of field. The best control I have is the ISO of the film.

I used two rolls of film in the end. One I picked by accident (good lesson to check the film first); a 100 ISO Perutz film (probably expired). I used this first while there was more light. The second was a 400 ISO film – an Agfa black and white roll. I also brought a 3200 ISO Ilford roll, but time had moved on before I got to use it. Next time maybe.

I brought my Olympus EM-1 purely as a light meter, but after examine some basic light variations (indoors, outdoors, in shadow) I didn’t use it at further.

Using the Light

I started shooting mid-afternoon, meeting up with my friend Tim at Perth CBD. No route was established, so we were left at the mercy of available light depending on where we wandered. It was a bright day, but being in the middle of a city meant lots of shadow and pockets of places with little light. It’s a frustrating thing to see good opportunities lost because you know the light isn’t good enough. Many times I just knew not to bother. 

The benefit of this frustration was that it made me think much more about the relationship between light and shadow in my pictures. I could make determinations about the shot without having to think about the settings on the camera. This gave me more focus (forgive the pun) on the composition itself. 

Composition

In terms of composition, I had free reign within the limitations of the camera. Digital cameras can be almost too liberating in that respect. Don’t get me wrong, you need that flexibility for so many shots, but there’s always the risk that the photo becomes the settings, not the composition. It helped me see the city in better terms, and think more about the unusual qualities of urban landscape. Not having any idea what the final image will look like was also liberating, because it meant I didn’t develop anxiety of getting the ‘right shot’. 

I’ve gone on more solo photo trips than I care to remember, but it was beneficial to have someone else around. Not only is Tim good company in general, but he’s a great photographer. I’ve tried to apply the social norm of not stealing other people’s shots on these kind of trips. What this means is that if someone sees a shot they think is interesting and distinctive, you don’t then try to take the exact same shot. It’s quite annoying to have another photographer come up and take the exact same image that you spotted.

In this way, having Tim around made me think more. Sometimes he would spot something and that meant I had to move on and look elsewhere. Rather than get frustrated by this, I used it as an opportunity for ‘what else can I find’ mentality. In other words, it forced me to look harder for a good opportunity and experiment a bit more. 

As I write this I have no idea what the images look like. I’ve linked to my photography blog some iPhone shots I took, to give you an idea of the type urban terrain we had at our disposal. When I get the images back I can look in more depth at how they came out. With 60 shots to pick from surely a few will be ok at the very least. 

Regardless, I had fun. It was great to free myself from the complexities of which lens, aperture, shutter speed, and think about really makes a good shot. More than that, it was just an enjoyable experience all round, taking photos for the sake taking photos, and enjoying the freedom that can come from limitation. In photography, whatever doesn’t kill you sets you free.

Winter Write-up or How I’ve neglected my writing and I need to change

Something happened. Something snapped. I’m hoping it wasn’t a muscle. I’ve been working out more, so that might explain it. Then again, this is a mental thing. 

Let me start again.

Last night I was writing. Well, rewriting I should say. Any hoot, in the midst of my literary lat pull downs it occurred to me that I don’t write often enough these days. 

There were a group of us talking about how much time we commit each day, often to unnecessary futile tasks. If we committed just 7 minutes a day to writing that would be 200 words a day (assuming 30 words a minute). 365 days x 200 = 73000. A novel.

I like my morning preparation for the day. The routine works. Early bus. Arrive I. Plenty of time for a coffee. No rush and easy start to the day. Time on the bus to listen to music, get in the mood. It’s almost meditative.

No doubt it has its benefits, but in the meantime important words are being left unsaid. Or, rather, unwritten. I do two bus journeys each day. 20 minutes or so each. Even if I was to reduce my writing time to 20 words a minute, that would be 800 each working day. In 6 months that would be over 100,000 words. 

Writing can also be meditative. And I exercise most days so I think I am sound in mind, spirit and body. I definitely need to rethink the routine. 

I kinda persuaded myself that university work was a good excuse to set aside the blog, but I’m not so sure. Seems like a cop out to me with hindsight. I reckon I could easily have made the time for both.

So the blogging is back, each weekday, and maybe the weekend if I get a chance (fuck, I just need 7 minutes). In the meantime, I need to reacquaint myself with writing projects, which I’ve handled with kid gloves for the past few months. Not acceptable. Bad mental-projection-of-myself-as-a-writing-slave-monkey.

Looks like the bus has nearly arrived.

Remember, 7 minutes.

The Council of Elrond as solution focused approach: the danger of storytelling over prompt decision making

So today, being Friday, I felt in somewhat whimsical mood. In the midst of my organising work for next week, I realised I need to have a meeting about a complex situation next week. I need to tailor the purpose of the meeting carefully, to avoid a significant level of distracting story telling and to make sure the focus is on some key decisions moving forward.

As I considered this I thought, not for the first time, of the many occasions meetings are subject to ‘storytelling’ and become burdensome for relatively simple outcomes. This is a matter of narrative, providing an overall flow of information that imparts just enough detail without becoming overly expositional. To illustrate, I have decided to write a description of the Council of Elrond from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and apply it to the Signs of Safety Assessment Framework (a solution focused framework). This is not a reflection in any way of the LOTR (which I enjoy immensely) or the Signs of Safety framework (it is simply the medium for describing the council, since I use the SOS every day at work). This is purely a tongue in cheek look at overlong meetings and faulty decision making.

The Council of Elrond

Attendees: All the good guys doing zero fighting up until this point, including

Gandalf the Grey, Aragorn (in fairness he used a fire brand at one point), four Hobbits that are in. Over. Their. Heads.

Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins, he’s only three feet tall. 

Some dwarves, including a cameo.

Some Elves, including Elrond (acting as chair) who is a master at delegating hard work to other people.

Some random jobber who turned up unexpectedly this morning (how convenient) and will be brought to the meeting without shower, breakfast or anything. 

In the interests of equality we should point out that while no women are named as present, it doesn’t mean there weren’t any (we can’t make that stick – everyone here is a guy or a pseudo-child male Hobbit)

Purpose of meeting

To decide how to stop Sauron, who intends to conquer the world using some hand crafted jewellery. We have his Ring.

What are we worried about?

If Sauron gets the One Ring he wins, for no other reason than the Ring giving him all the power. But it will be bad, very bad.

Sauron has a bigger army and will probably defeat us in open combat (see Missing Information for more on this).

Danger Statement

The Council of Elrond is worried that if Sauron gets the One Ring he will use it to take over the world, infest everything with Orcs and force all races to be subjugated to his will for all time. The CoE is worried that the Orcs will eat everyone while engaging in an orgy of Sauron worship, even though Sauron is so obsessed with the Ring he’ll be more interested in engaging in some kind of mind sex with it.

Complicating Factors

We could have destroyed the ring a long time ago, but didn’t because Elrond didn’t want to have an argument with his mate while standing next to a cavern of molton lava. Elrond is responsible for countless deaths.

The Elves are really, really bad at fighting battles. It’s bordering on sadomasochistic the way they keep serving themselves up for defeat 

We have allowed our enemies to spend centuries preparing to fight us, but we ourselves have done nothing.

Sauron has 9 bad dudes called the Nazgul.  

We will form a party of 9 men to match them, including GANDALF! Aragorn, random traitor/last minute redemption jobber, an Elf, a Dwarf and four children, even though their powers in no way match the Nazgul.

Aragorn is the heir to the throne of Gondor, and will for some time reject this notion, unless he needs to mention it to get respect or get into certain places. At some point he’ll just accept the notion, and this will constitute the whole of his character growth.

The rest of this meeting will be spent talking for hours, literally hours, about stuff going on in the world, but very little will be done to make a decision on anything.

What’s Working Well?

We have Gandalf!

We’ll get Gandalf the White later, which will also be the sum total of his character growth.

We’ll benefit from an insane level of friendly help, while our enemies will remain usefully anonymous (thus undermining their effectiveness and danger).

We have the Ring, but can’t actually use it. On the other hand, it means Sauron can’t use it or even see it, except at times it’s important to the plot.

Saruman is a bit useless as it turns out. 

The Nazgul are very powerful, yet throughout will be defeated by a sparkler (a flaming stick), some water (twice), a Hobbit with a magic penknife, a female warrior masquerading as a man and constituting one of the more interesting and detailed characters, Gandalf with a torch, and an exploding volcano. They will have very little actual impact.

We’ll be aided at various times by fortunate unexpected late arrivals of reinforcements.

Sam can carry an awful lot on his back.

The Elves have magic superglue for Aragorn to have his sword fixed.

Missing Information

Even though Sauron’s forces outnumber everyone else by many times, he’ll barely attack and will be defeated in every battle. He even has elephants. Elephants?! And he still loses.

It’s been asked many times over, but seriously you didn’t even consider the eagles to fly to Mount Doom?

In the past, when desperately outnumbered and close to defeat, the Elves sailed west and asked the Gods, the actual Gods, to come and help. They cut off Morgoth’s (Sauron’s former employer) hands and feet and chucked him into hell. Are we really saying that isn’t an option this time? I mean, they let Sauron go free originally so they do bear some responsibility here.

We don’t know where Gollum is, but really we think that will turn out good in the end.

Sauron created the One Ring by infusing a significant portion of himself to do it. Gandalf is actually the same kind of creature as Sauron (so is Saruman and Radagast). Are we really saying that it never occurred to three wizards to spend centuries working out how to make a good version? Or a super magic Ring finder and invincible flying creature?

What needs to happen?

After several hours talking about all sorts of things going on in the world, we’ll stop the Council and spend weeks collecting more, and somewhat superfluous, information before finally, finally, deciding to walk east for chuck the Ring in molten lava.
So you see, even in the realms of fantasy, people end up having long winded and ultimately inefficient meetings. Have a nice weekend.