Finding the peace to focus: eliminating distractions

Making the most of the evening, getting stuff written between dinner and bedtime, means cutting out the faffing. You know, all the getting ready, just going to check this or do that first…  Faffing gets between me and productivity so cutting it is important.

  1. I write on my laptop, not my desktop.
    My desktop’s in my office and the office is where I work. I need to avoid work-related distractions to get anything written.
  2. I write in my special chair, wrapped in my special blanket if it’s cold.
    The chair is comfortable and placed so that I can’t see the TV or look out the window.
  3. I plug my headphones in and listen to music.
    I need music that I like, but not love, so that I can, to a great extent, filter it out. It’s a careful balance: music’s that’s too good, or too engaging takes me out of the  story and into the music. Not productive.
  4. The last step is closing down any open web browsers.
    My special chair is not for research but only for writing. It’s a rule.

Despite the fact that I want to write, sometimes my mind skitters away from the task. If I remove as many distractions and barriers as I can, my mind is forced to focus and get down to business. That’s my theory, anyway. So far, it’s working.

I’ll be sitting on my special chair a lot over the coming weekend because I have a commission* for a story and want to write the first draft ASAP so that I have time to get it reviewed.

* Yes, a commission! I won a competition and the prize is a commission. I found this out almost exactly a month after having found out that I’d sold my first story. It’s been a a corker of a month! I’ve been published online and by the end of the year, two anothologies will feature my stories. Oh, and I signed up to read at the next Illicit Ink event. Corker. Of. A. Month. (I also collected three rejections. The universe hasn’t suddenly gone entirely out of whack: rejections continue.)

The Wolf at the Door is on Flashes in the Dark from today

If you’ve come to this post from Flashes in the Dark, welcome! Thank you for visiting and I hope you enjoyed the story. (For those of you who came from somewhere else: I have a story – The Wolf at the Door – on Flashes in the Dark, an online horror flash fiction site, today.)

There are a few more stories on this website, shorts that I wrote last year:

Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Later this year, you can also read me in New Writing Scotland 30 where I have a story, Foundling, about a woman who finds a lost little girl on her way to work on morning.

If you’re in Edinburgh, UK, or nearby, you can occasionally see me read at Illicit Ink and at other events. You can find out more about where I’ll be on the Events page. (Check out Edinburgh City of Literature if you’re interested in readings and other literary events. There are always things on.)

And so the plotting begins

To write a story, you need a plot. The longer the story, the more detail you need. This I have learned. I’m a somewhat seat-of-my-pants writer but am beginning to like to know where I’m going. And if I’m going a long distance – say, 100,000 words, for example – I want to have a good idea of the route. I’d get lost otherwise, I’d go nowhere, or in circles, boring my readers and myself. Since I’ve worked with this set of characters before, I know how I want them to change over the course of the book. So that’s great: character arcs are in place. The plot is another issue. I don’t have one. Or rather, I don’t have much of one. (This is what I’ve got: a chap dies and is found by our heroine. She’s put out.)

I’ve started working on the plot in a very similar way to the method I used for NaNoWriMo last year. This time I’m using a bigger piece of paper and many more coloured pens. It doesn’t look very structured and that’s OK. It isn’t. At the moment I’m at the brain-dump stage. I’ve put what little I know on a piece of paper, set out a time line and started putting in the few plot elements or scenes that I have. Hopefully, holes will become apparent and patterns will emerge. Then I can do research and generate ideas where the plot is weak. Finally, I’ll have a map. Then the writing starts.

Plotting begins in earnest. Timelines, interactions, mind-maps.
Plotting begins in earnest. Timelines, interactions, mind-maps. Sharpies!

There are plots that work…

…and presumably there are plots that don’t.

This is the story I told in my 2010 NaNoWriMo project:

A young private detective finds a body, and, investigating the death, makes new friends, including a murder suspect. The investigation touches her own family and she learns things about her mother’s past. She also learns that she can’t always trust old friends. With help from her new friends she solves the murder and realises that her mother is in mortal danger. Meanwhile, the police, who have been doing their own investigation, also solves it and saves the mother. The ex-suspect starts digitizing the family records and life continues much as it was, except that she now has a dad.

How does this plot differ from standard gum shoe stories?

  1. The main issue is that nothing much has changed at the end. The ‘grows up’ part of the plot needs to be bigger. I mean, if what she learns is so unimportant that I don’t even think it warrants a mention in a micro-summary it clearly lacks impact.
  2. The second problem is the parallel investigations. The main character normally works with the police, for example as a consultant. This way, they get access to information and suspects. On their own, they just don’t have all the information they need to solve the problem. Or they start looking into something that isn’t a murder, get embroiled and decide to solve it themselves. That’s more like my plot. Except, traditionally, the private detective confronts the murderer (catharsis). In my version, she figures out the problem, realises that someone is in danger and completely fails to get in contact with them (anti-climax).
  3. Family and friendship is central the story. These are important themes but they need to be more tightly integrated. The sudden appearance of the main character’s estranged dad is too important to be a throw-away at the end. It needs proper handling and introduction.

The novel I’m starting in June uses the same characters and many of the same settings as my NaNoWriMo projects. The plot will be very different. I’m spending the next couple of months working it out but I know that I need more plot than I’ve ever worked with before.

The imaginary strand of wool that is my main character’s journey from beginning to end needs twists, turns and maybe a knot or two. For colour and texture, my other characters needs their own strands. I look forward to messing all the strands up and then, carefully, untangling them again.

The gender gap: male and female characters in supernatural crime fiction

I’ve read an awful lot of supernatural crime fiction in the last couple of years to understand its conventions. My main character is a woman so I started by reading books about female main characters. At first, I found a lot of American books with female MCs. (Anita Blake, Sooki Stackhouse, Bella Swan, Rachel Morgan, even Kismet Knight. I’ve read them all.) On the one hand it was great that there was clearly a market for female characters. On the other hand, there was something about them that irritated me.

So I looked further and found a bunch of male writers in, what I thought, was the same genre. Mike Carey, Larry Correia, Ben Aaronovich, Malcolm Pryce, even China Mieville, write super-natural crime stories. They were very different from the first set of books that I read.

The problem was that most of the books with female characters fall in the supernatural romance cross-over genre. When I started my research I didn’t know that there was such a thing. I have some reservations about the genre, or rather, the female main characters. I like my main characters, male or female, to have gumption, agency and self-determination.

Part of the pleasure with the romance stories seems to be that the main character is swept along, unable to or stopped from taking control of her own life. Yes, many of them have agency and show pluck, and there are some areas of their lives they have control of – romance not being one of them – but there there’s all the other stuff that I find tedious and that male supernatural crime fiction heroes are delightfully free of. Silk dresses, for example. Male heroes don’t have to go clothes shopping and never risk popping out of their bras.

More importantly, male characters have to make their own decisions about relationships and sex. They can’t defer that to a much older but still young-looking partner. They aren’t always the most mature but they have to be adults: they chose their actions and take the consequences.

Here’s a table of some of the differences that I’ve noticed. I’m being unfair to both female and male male characters – some women have guns and some men have crushes – but I’m OK with that.

Female Main CharactersMale Main Characters
Spend a lot of time talking about clothes and getting dressed, often by their partners who have better taste and more money.Don’t care about clothes.
Are more than commonly attractive and have long, shiny hair. And big breasts.Are nothing special in the looks department but are strong. And clever.
Have a vampire boyfriend who adores her blindly. This gem comes with lots of moolah, an eye for striking outfits, and superb self-control.Are single.
May also have a werewolf boyfriend or other interesting parties that they want to have, or have had, sex with, which is all very confusing both on a physical and moral level.Hook up and move on.
Have psychic super-powers (mind reading is common).Are equally good with a curse or a gun.

Do the gender differences in these books reflect the interests of the male and female reading public? The books sell and, presumably, to their intended audiences. So, I suppose they must. They don’t satisfy me, though, and I hope that there is room for a different kind of main character: a female who isn’t chasing romance. More of a crime fiction main character, in fact.

The main character of my first novel is a young woman with a psychic super-power. She’s also single, a private detective, of sorts, and neither hard-boiled nor meltingly soft. She’s fairly well educated and runs a business with her mum. Because of who she is and what she does, she’s in a tricky position socially and politically. This informs her behaviour. She’s might be pretty, and have long, glossy hair, but I’m not telling. It’s just not as important as all the other stuff that makes her what she is.

#FictionFriday 239 – Santa has employed a publicity agent and marketing firm to revamp his style…

This Fiction Friday prompt from Write Anything was particularly difficult and I’m not happy with the result but, in the spirit of whatever I’m sharing it anyway. The prompt, to write a scene where Santa meets with his PR people, was fun and I thought it would be interesting to write about issues not with him but the team that supports him. I wanted to show the cracks in the cheerful veneer, pull a Pinter on the Christmas family. It didn’t work. The one little idea in these 753 words that I find interesting is Mrs Santa’s job.

Fragment, Friday 23 December

“But listen to her, dear” Mr Santa said to Mrs Santa, “she knows what she’s talking about.”

Mrs Santa sighed and took a tighter grasp of her knitting needles.

“Sweetness,” she said, somewhat tartly, “I know that Ms Yarrow knows what she’s talking about. Yarrow and Yule have done a very good job with our PR for years. However…” she fixed Ms Yarrow with a steely gaze, “we’ve had this conversation before.”

“Times change, Mrs Santa, times change.”

“And we have to change with it!” Mr Santa stood up and walked over to the sofa where Mrs Santa was sitting. The atmosphere in the room was tense. Everyone there knew that this conversation would be difficult. Ms Yarrow felt for Mrs Santa. What they were asking her to do was not easy. She too walked over to the sofa. Pulling up a chair she sat down immediately opposite Mrs Santa and looked at her.

“Yes, we’ve had this conversation before. Last time, we decided against this particular course of action. This time, things are different: the mood of the age is different. We need a drastic image change to keep popularity.”

Mrs Santa was focused on her knitting. Her movements were stiff with anger. She dropped the needles into her lap and looked straight at Ms Yarrow.

“In the fifties we decided that Mr Santa needed a comfortable, nonthreatening  companion, not a sex-bomb, not a working woman. Over several years we changed the colour of my hair, I gained weight, started wearing frumpy clothing. I left work – work that I loved – and dedicated myself to keeping house. I learned to knit and sew, bake and make jam. I took up the traditional role you wanted me to fulfil. Now, you ask me to go the other way.”

Ms Yarrow nodded.

“Yes. The family image that you portray is not washing with our test subjects. We thought that, considering the economy and all the trouble in the world, they’d love the fact that Santa still runs a mom and pop shop. But they don’t. They think that you’re setting a bad example, lolling about at home, cooking fatty foods and spoiling the elves.”

“They do, do they?” Mrs Santa’s voice was ice. “They think I’m a bad example?” She picked up one of the balls of yarn on the sofa next to her and fiddled with it, pulling out a piece of yarn, twisting it, pulling, twisting.

“Yes. They also think that you should try a little harder, make more of yourself. The way you look. You know, lose some weight, maybe, wear more fashionable outfits.”

“More fashionable outfits?”

“Yes. The red and white prairie frock is so 1970s.”

“I thought 1970s was the look?”

“Only if it’s retro. Not when it’s unchanged since… Lipstick wouldn’t hurt either. And botox.”

“I see. Talking of the 70s…”

“Yes, dear?” Santa thought it was safe for him to enter the conversation again. He could tell that his wife was keeping her temper under control. She was as tightly coiled as the piece of yarn she was worrying. She had always had a fiery temper, had Mrs Santa.

“I remember asking, in the 70s, if it wasn’t time to update my image a little. If I should go back to work, outside the home, you know, to do what other women were doing back then. To show that we were all for women’s lib.”

“But darling, we weren’t. We really weren’t . Not back then.” Santa laughed.

“I was.” The piece of wool in Mrs Santa’s hand broke.

Ms Yarrow took hold of Mrs Santa’s hands, stopping their fidgeting.

“The world wasn’t. What the consumer in the 70s wanted to see as the embodiment of Christmas spirit was a stay at home grandma who cooked for Santa. Back then, men was still the main Christmas shopping demographic: they needed to know that their hard work was needed, was necessary and appreciated. Now, we’re selling to women and girls. They need to see you more active, more out there, more like them.”

“More out there? My skills are 50 years out of date. There isn’t a lab in the world that would employ me now.”

“We’ll get you on a back to work scheme. You could work with kids?”

“I don’t want to work with kids. I’m a scientist. I’m a geneticist, to be specific.”

Ms Yarrow sat back on her chair.

“Yes. We need to talk about that too. We really need to talk about that.”

#FictionFriday 238: “Sorry I had to rig your GPS…”

To get practice reading out loud and help generating ideas I’m taking part in Write Anything’s Fiction Friday challenge this month. So far, the writing’s been more successful than the reading. Reading and recording takes as long, or even longer, than writing. I’ll try to get this one recorded on time.

I spent about an hour writing these 983 words. Not editing is very difficult. I want to do some major edits to this text, to make it flow better and to add more detail here and there.  I’m quite interested in finding out how John and Emma met: they seem to live intersting lives and I wish I knew more about them.

The not entirely coherent spoken version of this story can be found on AudioBoo.

Short, December 16

“Sorry I had to rig your GPS, but you wouldn’t have come otherwise. This is urgent. You know what you said, this morning? About my rashness, my habit to do stupid things? You were right, of course. I do do stupid things, stretch for things just beyond my reach. I don’t seem able to help myself.”

John smiled as he read the note Emma had left on the kitchen table. She wrote just like she spoke and he could hear her voice in his head. Her handwriting was strong and even. He recognized the scarlet ink she always filled her favourite fountain pen with.

“I have a favour to ask of you. Actually, I have two favours to ask of you. The first one is this: don’t leave now. Don’t walk out that door in a snit because I tricked you and you’re cross with me. There’s time for that later. “

He had no intention to leave. He had been angry with her, but that was this morning. Emma was eager to learn, eager to try her powers and to learn to control them. Her ambition was one of the reasons he loved her. She wanted to become the most powerful sorceress in the world. The problem he had with her learning-by-doing approach was her impatience. She threw fireballs and opened portals to parallel dimensions before she’d learned to hover feathers above her hand. She dove straight in, every time, entirely without fear. But magic was dangerous and he was afraid that she’d kill herself in her hurry to master a new technique.

“When you left, I went back to my work and continued to study the text that we quarreled about. It might seem like a really insensitive thing to do when you’ve just had a ding-dong row about it with your boyfriend/teacher, but it was a really interesting text and you were wrong: I could handle it. See, I even learned something new from it. This morning, I wouldn’t have been able to rig your GPS by magical means. But by lunchtime, I could. Isn’t that brilliant?”

It was brilliant. Emma was brilliant. He was so proud of her. John put her note down to make himself a cup of coffee and took both into the living room to read the rest.

“I got lots of great tips on different teleportation techniques – don’t worry, I still haven’t tried most of them, easy does it – as well as the distant manipulation that got you here this evening. The problems started this afternoon, when I looked at the other book. Yes, that one. The one you looked into the strongbox.”

The coffee suddenly tasted bitter in John’s mouth. He got up and walked to the bedroom where the strongbox was, reading as he went.

“I opened the strongbox and hovered the book down to the study all using remote techniques. I’m getting really good at that and at the moment, I don’t think there’s a metal container in the world that can keep me out. Or keep in anything I want out of it. Don’t be too annoyed. You knew I wouldn’t be able to stay away from it for long. Curious George, that’s me. Always monkeying around, sniffing things out.”

The strongbox looked as it always did. The lid was closed and locked. John’s hands shook as he made the signs that unlocked the box.  He got down on his knees and opened the lid. A faint smell of sulphur was the only indication that magic had been used. That, and the fact that the book was gone.

This book was one that he really hadn’t wanted Emma to get her hands on until her training was much more advanced. What she had spirited out of the strongbox was the book that held his magic, his tricks and his power: his grimoire. It is not something you share with a novice. Most sorcerers never show another person their grimoire but John had wanted to share it with Emma. Eventually. When he was entirely sure that he could trust her.

“My darling, John. I understand now why it was so important to you that I don’t look at this particular book. It breaks my heart that I didn’t respect your wishes, that I broke in to the strongbox and took it. Here, on the pages in front of me, are all your secrets. It is as if I know your thoughts now and I know how to use them against you. Suddenly, I understand the width of your power – you have so much more that I thought – and I know how to turn that against you too. I know too much to be able to stay. This is our end and it has to happen this instant.”

The sadness John felt was not as strong as the panic that rose in him. Emma had everything she needed to destroy him. To remove him from the fabric of the universe and take everything he’d ever known, achieved and loved and make it her own.

“Here’s the second favour I have to ask of you. Don’t come looking for me. I love you, John, but I love the power more. You understand, don’t you? I know that you do, or you would have shared this with me when I moved in with you. You shared everything else, from bathroom habits to embarrassing dreams, so why not this? It was because it meant more to you than I did. It is the same for me: magic is more important to me than anything. Maybe one day I can give it back to you. Until then, my love, stay safe.”

John crawled into a ball on the floor, crushing the note, smearing the pretty, treacherous letters with hands damp with panic sweat. He was alone. And he was powerless.


#FictionFriday 237: there’s a zombie on your lawn

To get practice reading out loud and help generating ideas I’m taking part in Write Anything’s Fiction Friday challenge this month. My second attempt took about an hour write give a quick once-over. I wouldn’t call that editing. Not really. The goal was around 600 words and I overshot completely. The final tally is 975.

I’m quite enjoying writing these stories. I am aware that they aren’t great but I don’t care. The joy of the task comes from working within the restrictions: write on a topic, for a set time, don’t edit. Instant gratification.

Recording them is less fun. I need a lot more practice reading out loud: five minutes is more than I can do without stuttering and slipping up.

Short, December 09

The cup of coffee was warm in Lara’s hand as she crossed the street. She smiled at the people she recognised: all the office workers, walking the same route every day. They passed each other and they recognised each other but they didn’t really know each other. Living in the city was very different from living in the country:  she felt both alone and protected here.

The park was empty when she crossed the lawn, taking a short cut that a hundred people took every day. The park attendants probably screamed in frustration at seeing the brown line across this corner but not matter how many “Don’t walk on the grass” signs they posted, people cut across here. It was just faster than walking on the path.

The grass was freshly mowed and she enjoyed the smell of grass and warm asphalt, the scents of the city in the summer. It made her feel so at home. She took a sip of her coffee and was about to enjoy the aroma when something else caught her attention. There was an off smell coming from somewhere. A sweet, slippery smell – the smell of dead things. Lara stopped.

This smell she knew. When she’d been at home on the farm her dog, Russet, would bound off into the forest and find something smelly to roll in. She was fond of dead sheep or cows. It could take a week for the smell to go away even with repeated sessions in the bath.  Lara looked around. There was a dead body somewhere close. On the lawn to the right a couple stood talking. They were facing each other but not quite, Lara noticed, looking at each other. He was looking over her shoulder and she as looking over his. Lara caught his eyes and tried her good morning smile on him. The smell was coming from over where they were standing. She started walking towards them just as he nudged the woman and she looked over at Lara. They both stared at her impassively.

“Can you smell that?” she asked as she got closer. “It stinks. Something’s dead around here.”

The woman turned fully around but neither of the two answered her. Now she could see them better there was something about them she didn’t like. Lara stopped and took a step back. The smell came from the couple, she was sure of it. They reeked.

Ah. Zombies.

They looked completely normal, if a little pale and kind of waxy. They still stared at her. The female tipped her head this way and that, like a bird, looking, judging. Suddenly the couple smiled. It was not a re-assuring sight.

The zombies had black smiles. Their teeth were black, their gums were black, the skin on the inside of their mouths was black. A normal smile is pink, white and glistening. These were black, grey and dry. The woman stuck out a black, leathery tongue and licked dry, cracking lips. The man hissed. Lara took another step backwards.

“Never-mind,” she called, her voice shaking slightly, “my mistake.”

She stepped back on to the path and started walking away. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder only to see that the couple was walking towards her. She walked quicker. She could hear the clicking of her heels against the asphalt but not the sound of their shoes. She looked behind her again. They were following, one on either side of the path, both on the grass. She noticed that they were bare foot and that they now moved with their hands in front of their bodies, as if that would help them keep their balance when they moved faster.

Coffee spilled over Lara’s fingers as she started jogging. She threw the disposable cup onto the grass and tucked her handbag under her arm to stop it from bouncing. The park was empty. Usually there were women walking their children to school, morning joggers, cyclists, pensioners walking their dogs. Now there was no one. She could hear the steps of the couple now. They were getting closer. She glanced to the side and could see the male lumbering along on the grass, ungainly but inexorable. The woman was on the other side, a little further back, moving in the same steady but difficult way.

The gate to the park was ahead of Lara. She sent a quick thought of gratitude to the friend who had talked her into these chunky heels. She would never have been able to run at the speed she now accelerated to if she’d been wearing stilettos. She sprinted through the gate and shut it behind her, slamming the padlock she found hanging on the gate closed. The couple was still ambling towards her but slower now. It seemed they lost focus when she was no longer in the park. That must be their territory.

Lara opened her handbag and dug out her mobile phone. If there were zombies in the park it should be closed. She could have died in there! She phoned the emergency services. While waiting to get through to the switch board she started walking back to the gate where she entered the park. She had to make sure that it was closed so that no one else walked in there.

The sun shone brightly and all she could smell now was the warming scent of the sap oozing out of the park’s cedar hedge. She had to call her boss to let him know why she was late and she needed another coffee. With the danger behind her she was quietly pleased at how she’d handled the zombie attack. Her mother would be proud and horrified. The city was dangerous but if you took precautions – paid attention, wore shoes you could run in – it was no more dangerous than the countryside. At least there were no werewolves here.

#FictionFriday 236: your main character is in the process of escaping…

To get practice reading out loud and help generating ideas I’m taking part in Write Anything’s Fiction Friday challenge this month. Below is my first effort. I wrote for five minutes, then a couple more, checked the spelling, changed a word or two but resisted editing. That was very hard! This week’s fragment is 301 words long.

(The spoken version is on Audioboo.)

Fragment, December 02

She tore out of the cellar, scraping her shoulder as she pushed through the broken window, and ran across the garden. She didn’t dare look behind her to see if she was being followed but focused on running as fast and as far as she could. At the end of the garden she vaulted the fence and continued running, ignoring the fact that she was trespassing. She didn’t know anyone here. That was part of her problem.

The rain cooled her body but her breathing became laboured quickly. The sound of the rain and her own breathing made it difficult to hear anything else. The hair at the back of her neck prickled as she jumped over a second fence. She was sure that there was someone, something, just behind her. She moved a little faster. The wet grass was slippery and she almost fell when she landed after jumping another fence.

She rested for a second, crouching below the white picket fence she’d just jumped over. She caught a glimpse behind her. She couldn’t see anyone. There was no one there, no one coming after her. No shadows in the rain, no movement at all. She was relieved but also worried. They couldn’t just let her go so if they weren’t behind her, they must be ahead of her, or running alongside her. They had to be close. What was their plan?

She looked frantically around and was startled to see a small boy standing in the garden behind her. He was wearing a baby-blue onesie and sucking his thumb. His blond hair was plastered to his head, water running down his face. He was drenched.

“What are you doing?” he said, taking his thumb from his mouth. “Are you playing hide and seek?”

“Kind of,” she answered. “Kind of.”

NaNoWriMo week two – we have problems

NaNoWriMo 2011 participant badgeI was doing well and the words were coming at a decent rate. Then the terror of weeks two. First I lost a day due to cold and then I fell out of love with one of my characters, two minutes into writing him. It’s happened before. The first time I tried writing a book-sized story I killed my main character after six pages because she irritated me. I then followed her white knight for another couple of pages before I got bored with him and gave up on writing a book. (I was 16. Cut me some slack.)

My experience this year was similar. I don’t remember having problems with my characters last year. Even (or should that be especially?) the outright silly ones wrote themselves. This guy and I have so little in common that I can’t be bothered with him. I have a number of scenes for him in my head that could be interesting to write, except that they don’t fit because I’m writing a first person narrative and he’s not the person whose eyes we look out of.

Luckily, there are solutions. Note the plural. I found ways to enjoy this character a little and to weave in a third person narrative into my straightforward first-person tale. Phew. I don’t want to have to re-think the entire structure or POV until I start editing, sometime next year.

Second week tally: 28,423