Thursday, 28 August 2014

What Doesn't Kill Your W-I-P Makes You Stronger (Hopefully)

Yeah, I've been away from this blog for a while. August? Soooo not a good month for me, it would appear.

Apart from the obvious change in routine that having my eight-year-old son at home on school holidays inevitably brings, this particular August has been something of a lesson in stress management for me. I've had a catalogue of minor disasters occur, which has led me to conclude that this first book in The Renegades Trilogy has more lives than a cat and must really, really want to be written. After all it (and by association I) have been through these past few weeks, I practically owe it commitment now.

Disaster Number One pretty much put the mockers on me writing anything at all on my computer, since sitting at it felt like having arrows shot through my shin-bones. Remember that allotment of mine I told you about in this post?  Yeah, well, about three days after that I spent an evening out there doing my Monty Don thing, and managed to get bitten by some nasty flying midge-y things. Four of them, to be precise. I know it was exactly four, because some three weeks later I still have the four slightly hideous puncture wounds on my shins as evidence. Y'see, as the doctor helpfully explained to me, ninety-five percent of people suffer only itching and stinging for a couple of days from said midge-y things, but about five per cent will have a reaction that requires antibiotics and staying horizontal for a couple of days until their lower legs deflate back to their normal size and stop oozing. Guess which category I fell into? It's fine, don't worry. I now wear wellies and bathe in insect repellent spray before I set foot in my allotment. And I'm not a leg model so the unattractive holes in my shins are no big deal - although if I were to audition for a role as a Plague Victim I reckon they'd at least earn me a callback.

Disaster Number Two was what you might call of a triumph of my own stupidity. I use Scrivener to organise my novel, which is saved on the hard drive of my computer. But, in the interests of averting disaster (ha ha) I also keep a 'backup copy' of it saved to a USB stick, which I copy over at the end of every writing session. Or at least, I thought that's what I was doing. It turns out actually no, I wasn't. Somehow I had managed to make two copies of the Master Version on my hard drive; one that I'd been diligently adding to every day, and another that hadn't been touched for about six months. When I discovered there were two copies I thought it made sense to delete the old, redundant one - after all, if I left it there I might get confused and accidentally do something terrible to the wrong copy, mightn't I? So I solved this potentially terrible possibility by deleting one of the copies on my hard drive.

The wrong copy, as it turned out.

Did I double-check beforehand that I was deleting the right one? Noooo, because that's how sure I was I knew what I was doing. But that's okay, I hear you cry, because you still had the backup on your USB stick, right? Erm... yeah I did. A backup of the six-months-old, redundant copy I thought I'd just tried to delete. I'd been diligently copying the wrong version to my USB stick for the past six months as well.

I looked in my Recycle Bin, but for whatever reason the deleted files weren't in there. I went into Scrivener and tried to restore the most recent backup, but for some other reason it wouldn't let me do that either. I could of course have gone into full-on meltdown at this point, but for some reason I didn't - I was actually quite calm, if a little depressed about the huge amount of work that potentially lay ahead of me if I couldn't retrieve my files somehow. After a day or two of posting queries on the Scrivener forum and preparing to start the whole thing over from scratch I got some helpful replies and, with a lot of tweaking and fiddling, was finally able to restore a backup of the right file that only had about a days' work missing. And you can bet your life the very first thing I did was delete the real redundant one and put my new, restored one in a sensible place I was sure to remember. And backed it up to my USB stick as well. That's how to learn a lesson the hard way, let me tell you.

They say disasters come in threes, and clearly Fate didn't want me to feel I was being short-changed so Disaster Number Three followed less than a week later. My computer began to die. I'd switch it on and it would chug along happily for about - oooh, ten minutes - and then suddenly go to blue-screen and try to restart. Sometimes it was successful - until another ten minutes had passed and it would blue-screen and try to restart again. Other times it wasn't, and just hung there in blank-monitored silence like the proverbial dead parrot of Monty Python fame.

Needless to say this was a problem that trumped the preceding two. Being permanently without a working computer would mean I wasn't going to get much of anything done - but I didn't have the money to buy a new one. There was always my local library, which offers free computer access - but that often means waiting for ages for one to be available, and while the Scrivener program does fit on a USB stick (and I'd managed to copy it to mine before my computer started its death throes) running it from there is so agonizingly s-l-o-w it's unworkable in practice. And libraries definitely don't like you installing your own software on their machines.

Buying a new computer was out of the question, but fortunately I have a computer-y background, part of which involved a previous job at a large, well-known computer retailer with a technical support department. If I could get an expert opinion from one of the guys there on which bit of my computer had gone belly-up, I could possibly afford to replace that one component. (I'd already previously replaced the hard drive in the past, when my old one succumbed to the effects of a particularly malicious virus.) So I packed it up and took it into the store I used to work in, and after a forty minute diagnostic the verdict was in. Praise the lord, it was simply clogged up to the max with dust, which was stopping the fan from turning and making it overheat and shut itself down! A quick blast with their air-jet thingy and, like Lazarus, my beloved old 'puter rose again.

So yeah, a stressful month - but all of this has convinced me I am meant to write this novel. Even if it takes me years, even if I end up self-publishing it because no-one in the Legacy Publishing industry wants anything to do with it - hell, even if I end up never publishing it at all and just moving on to something else instead. And since it fights so hard to live, no matter what, I've realised it needs a little more respect than I've been giving it so far. It's planned as Book 1 of The Renegades Trilogy, so I can't keep calling it The Renegades; it needs its own, stand-alone title. And in keeping with both the theme of the novel itself and its ability to keep getting back up from every little setback, it will be known from this point onwards as Redemption.

Well... until some agent or editor somewhere tells me it sucks and suggests changing it to something else, of course. That could happen. But I'll chew on that gristle if and when it gets served up to me.

So come on, Redemption - we've got an appointment. You and me, at my computer, now. I'll bring the chocolate.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

How My New Allotment is a Lot Like Draft One of My Novel

Yesterday I finally become the proud owner (well - 'leaser' anyway) of an allotment - a lovely patch of land about forty feet by twenty feet for the purpose of growing stuff to eat.

I'd been on a waiting list for a while, so when this came up I jumped at it. If I hadn't, my eight-year-old son would probably have jumped on my behalf, since he's been panting to have his own little patch to grow things ever since our next door neighbours got their allotment plot. Needless to say, he is beside himself with an excitement which hasn't been dulled in the slightest by the current state of our newly-acquired plot. Because... yeah. Ready-to-plant it aint. Not by a long shot.

Its previous owner was a man in his eighties, who gradually stopped tending to it because it just became too much for him. So when we took it over yesterday afternoon it hadn't seen any action for at least two years. As a result, any soil there is hidden under a thick carpet of knee-high grass, ivy and a particularly virulent form of thistle - not to mention long-discarded bags of fertiliser, bits of wood and wire netting and other assorted rubbish scattered all over the place. So yeah, something of an unholy mess that's gonna need a lot of clearing up, digging up and tearing out unwanted stuff before I can start putting in the things I want to grow and nurture.

And it struck me that my first draft of w-i-p The Renegades looked a lot like that too, when I first came back to it after a six-week 'fermentation period.'

In both cases I think I went through the same emotions. I started off  by staring at it and going "Whoa... that's a whole lotta work to do right there." I definitely doubted my stamina and determination to commit to the task. My track record in the past hadn't been that great, particularly with novels; I'd put in the hard work for a bit, but as my enthusiasm trailed off so did the hours I put into it, until it got to none at all. But that was with even getting a draft one finished, and this time I'd done that - I'd finally got to the stage where I had a completed draft to work on. I finally proved to myself that I can do it after all - I can commit when I feel something's worth the effort. The Renegades is worth the effort, even if it ultimately never gets published - I'll still have learned so much about how to write a novel from it, which I can use towards writing more and better ones in the future. And this allotment will be worth it too.

So yesterday, within minutes of acquiring my new plot of land, I decided to approach it the way I approached my other plot - the one I'm currently shaping into Draft Two of The Renegades.

Golden Rule Number One: start small. I can't fix everything right away, and trying to make the whole thing look better overall in just one pass is just too big a task and will ultimately leave me feeling like I've barely made a dent in terms of progress. So I set to work on clearing just a small section of the plot, a six-foot-square corner overgrown with thistles and trailing ivy. I ripped them all out, broke up the soil underneath and dug it over, so that I had a nice, bare patch of ground to plant things in. Okay, it might only be six foot square patch, but it's the best patch, and when I look at the whole plot overall it's very obvious that I've done something to improve it. Which makes me think "hmm, yeah, I can do this. A bit at a time, in regular little chunks, and I can do all of this."

I've reached the halfway point in draft two of The Renegades so far - and that too, was done in regular little chunks each day. Of course I'll still need to go back over them and tighten them further - but, like my little patch of earth, they already look miles better than the draft one sludge pond they emerged from. And that spurs me on to keep going, in regular little chunks at a time.

I'll be the first to admit I'm no gym bunny, so after yesterday's efforts in my allotment I was fully expecting to wake up this morning feeling like I'd fallen out of a first-floor window. But actually it's... not bad. The only place I ache is, somewhat weirdly, my hands, from tearing all those stubborn thistles up (a writer who's fingers are out of shape - how ironic is that?) And I probably felt the same way the morning after my first time at the coalface with draft two as well.

Each morning, before beginning my writing session, I've also been reading a metric tonne of books about novel writing and plotting and outlining and dialogue and show don't tell... Because if I'm gonna do this thing - and I am gonna do this thing - I'm darn well gonna do it armed with every tidbit of knowledge and advice I can get my hands on. So now I'm planning my library trips to get books about growing fruit and veg, not to mention trips to garden centres to ogle all those lovely seeds and gardener's charts and all the other fancy-pants things that now look like I desperately need them (I probably don't - a bit like I don't really need another notebook divided into six sections, or another set of highlighters that - oh look! Can be hung on a keyring this time..!)

And now I must leave you - I have an allotment to tend to. And my eight-year-old son has already planted it all out in his head and is nagging my ears off to make it a reality - by the end of today, if possible. Hmm... looks like not everyone can see the benefits of 'regular little chunks...'