Monthly Archives: October 2012

My First NaNoWriMo

Sometimes working under pressure produces great results. But with National Novel Writing Month, you don’t have to produce great results—all you have to do is write 50 000 words in 30 days. That’s exactly what I plan to do.

I’ve been frantically putting together a plot outline, character profiles, and the basic bits and pieces needed. All within a week! This will be my first novel, and I personally aim to get about 1,800 – 2,000 words written a day. It’s a YA novel, and here are the details.

One Sentence Synopsis:
A teenage boy leaves home in order to secure his family and future, and finds a job aboard a rebellious restaurant—in space!

Synopsis/Blurb

Life would be hard growing up with only your mum and sisters for company—imagine doing it in space!

Teenager and familial caretaker Zinc decides to seek a solution when he finds out that his childhood home might be taken away from him. Without a thought of what the galaxy offers, he hitches a ride and ends up with a job at the Solar Saloon. How will he cope as a waiter, or a dishie, or cooped up in the bowels of this rebellious restaurant? Never mind the surly bartenders or the crazy troupe of chefs, what about the Interplanetary Hospitality Regulation? 

Join Zinc as he tries to find his way in a universe he never, ever imagined, all while trying to save his family and make a few friends along the way.

I came up with the idea about two weeks ago, and found out about NaNoWriMo a week ago, so it’s been a whirlwind in my head. So far I’ve read everything I can lay my hands on in order to prepare (like buying the cheap and excellent Outlining Your Novel) and it’s already taught me a bunch about the writing process. I’m taking it as a stepping stone for my more ambitious YA trilogy. But in the end I’m just looking forward to some intense writing.

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Book Review: Down and Out in Paris and London

I finally got around to reading this after my friend suggested it. And let me say straight up that it’s an oddly life affirming read. I’ve always loved Animal Farm (having written an amazing assignment on it during Year 7) and 1984 is obviously a favourite classic. I’ve read a few Orwell short stories as well, but coming at this book a little bit later in life shook me up in all kinds of thought-provoking ways. Even better than the amazing insights Orwell gives the reader is the way the man writes. It’s sublime, hitting perfect notes constantly. It’s simplistic, yet manages to build towards fantastic conclusions. His journalistic nature definitely adds more to the prose. But enough gushing; what are the highlights? Well, too many to include them all.

Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work.

Oh man, what a doozy to start with. It’s a neatly balanced sentence, but it brings up my dislike of utilising the word ‘just’ …unjustly. Personally, I try to avoid including it in any sentence; it feels so plebeian. But I digress. Orwell is referring in this part to his neighbours in Paris. From here the book really gets going, and essentially hangs on this idea throughout. What is poverty, and why/how do people succumb to it? Is it merely a tool that allows a certain way of life? Though I must say that, at least today, money does not equate to freedom from labour. In a welfare state it might even be the other way around…

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty…You thought it would be simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring.

Immediately I want to jump on Orwell’s use of the semicolon a.k.a. the most awesome piece of punctuation. I honestly can’t believe there is debate over its validity; anyone who disagrees should be forced to read Down and Out. I’m getting all giddy by looking at those sentences. Back to the topic, throughout the book Orwell really enforces the fact that poverty is extremely boring, and is perhaps the worst aspect of the whole ordeal. However, he somehow make his mundane experiences vibrant, interesting, and naturally verbose. The characters he meets are rich and full of their own stories, and at times it feels like they are right next to you regaling in another yarn.

The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter.

That speaks straight to me. In fact the whole retelling of life in hospitality hit a sweet spot in my mind. My jobs may never have been as crazy or harsh as Orwell describes, but there are definitely similarities to make. It’s written so enthusiastically that I almost wish I had experienced the 1930s stuck in a hotel kitchen. Almost.

The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.

Now my leftist side is coming out. This experience with poverty clearly affected Orwell in such a moving way, and the influences can be felt through most of his later work. He laments the fact that those in power to be able to change will never do so for fear of losing their grip on that power. And yet what is the difference between these people but cleaner threads? We are all as despicable or amiable as each other, and the only true determining factor is how much capital we own.

No, not necessarily. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here“—he tapped his forehead—and you’re all right.

This is where I am right now. I don’t have a lot (but that is not to say I am struggling, far from it), but I am quite content with books and reading and exploring my own ideas. This is why I’ve gone back to university, this is why I’m writing again with more vigour than before. This quote also highlights the simplicity of life—it is what you make of it. Earlier the same character had said that, “The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.” Never a truer word was said.

Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.

This is as relevant today as it was then, perhaps more so. Again, Orwell muses on what really separates man from man: money. Race, gender, and sexuality may all have bearing on opinion and prejudice, but at the end of the day how much money (also known as power and capital) you have is what matters. Until we can even this playing field—and inequality is a growing concern—humanity will always be at war with itself.

A word becomes an insult, one would suppose, because it means something bad; but in practice its insult-value has little to do with its actual meaning.

Always the wordsmith, a little chapter on slang and swears is a good diversion from the road of poverty. And it makes me think about the word ‘gay’. Now, I understand that a lot of people take offence when someone says ‘That’s gay‘. However, when someone says those words, there is no longer a correlation to homosexuality (insulting someone by assuming that being gay is a bad thing is different). Like the word ‘bastard’ or ‘bugger’ it’s lost these connotations. That’s the way English goes, and clearly, from reading Down and Out, always has gone.

A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor—it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.”

This quote is referring to tramps/beggars and their unseemliness towards charitable churches. What I thought of refers to government. Now, bear with me. Tax reforms, welfare, and other government subsidies are all necessary, but what if the reason we hate our politicians is because 1) there are more of us, 2) a platform to express dislike, and 3) because the government looks after us. They are our benefactors, and everyone from the 1% to the Great Unwashed Masses hates them for it. I’ll admit, it’s a flimsy argument that needs a lot of work, but it’s only a thought.

That’s not even all the quotes and highlights I marked. This is a book that is as relevant today as it was almost 100 years ago. I highly recommend it for anyone still young enough to have an open mind.

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Book Review: Things We Didn’t See Coming

Hullo to the faithful and newcomers alike.

First of all, I want to frame this as a constant feature. I’ve been reading a lot more, and I think it (obviously) helps to look at the work of others with a critical slant. Accordingly, every time I finish a book I’m going to write a little review. The format will consist of taking lines I enjoyed or that stood out, and expanding on the ideas they express. It’s a good way to get examples and chunk up the review. Course, it’ll be easier with eBooks!

The first book is a newish title called Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam. It’s a story about the apocalypse—or maybe apocalypses. Poignantly, I read this article today that suggests novels are made of short stories. It’s true of a lot of fiction, and may become an increasingly important feature with the serialisation of eBooks. But let’s get on with the book at hand:

Dad, talking like she’s not there, tells me that the world is large and complicated, with too many parts relying on other parts and they all octopus out.

Things feels like a bunch of individual stories that share a constant protagonist and the same world (which can be a little confusing to begin with). It’s a very large fictional world, but the parts don’t necessarily rely on each other. Sure, there are some themes and characters that stay throughout, but for the most part each chapter can be (perhaps should be) read alone. It’s a great sensation as time leaps forward through every stage of the downfall of mankind—and (spoiler) the eventual undoing of one man. Each segment squirms out on its own to explore a variety of themes.

Grandpa likes to say: “Everything will be fine until it’s not. Then we can worry.”

That seems to sum up humanity. We don’t worry about the past, or when we do we make hollow vows to never repeat it. This book concerns itself with the main characters immediate reaction to whatever situation he finds himself in, and an awful lot can happen at the end of the world. Whether it’s an outbreak of virulent plague, or acceptance of cancer, he deals with issues as they come over the horizon. It’s true of all life, whether in civilisation or at the end of it.

It’s the way I’ve been living as long as I can remember, always on the lookout for every unwatched package and every unlocked door—it all suddenly seems barbaric.

A key motif that appears over and over again is the action of stealing. At one stage our, ahem, hero promises to never steal again. Of course, in later stories he does, but a seed of honesty is sown. What does it take to be truthful in a world gone to the cleaners? The character’s arc is a long one over the course of the novel, and his actions always seem, if not just, at least justifiable. Each story sees a shift in perspective, both of himself and the world around him, and by the end all these incremental changes add up to, well, something he didn’t see coming.

I want the jug gone, I want her hand in mine. I want to trust her completely. I want to know we’re in this together.

The use of the first-person is also sublime. Considering that I am working on a piece that uses this perspective, it’s a confidence booster. Clearly this book is set in an imaginary future, which is perhaps why it works. It could be happening now, so real are the settings and situations—so real that the reader slips right on into the head of the protagonist. It could be us. We hope it’s us. Not because of the crappy experiences, but because we get through them with integrity, honour.

There has to be a reason for this to be happening. There’s a lesson here. There’s got to be a reason.

Does there? When the world ends will there be a fully explainable reason to it? Things explores a whole suite of possibilities, all of which we could never see coming. Whether it’s the overarching theme of apocalypse, or the individual, chapter-to-chapter short stories, it’s a fully realised novel that explores the inevitable impossibilities of the future.

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Publishing Thoughts

And like that my first semester of Masters is over.

It’s been a quick 13 weeks, but I’ve learned so much already. Book formats, design terminology, and marketing techniques have all been part of it, but the number one thing I’ve gathered is that the future of publishing is very fluid right now, and very, very exploitable. Far from the coming apocalypse that most people believe is inevitable, the future of book publishing is actually quite hopeful. All it means is that the methods of the past will have to change. Being part of a fresh cohort—nubile minds absorbing mistakes and possibilities—is actually a massive boon. Heck, I’m not even sure if  I want to stick to editing, as there are so many career avenues on offer.

Personally though, there is one component of books going into the future that has the most potential. Digital books are here to stay, but what makes them stand out? The interactivity? Price points? No, I think that the promise of the online book is in sociability. Books have always promoted conversation, and now it’s easier than ever. I’m talking about things that go beyond Amazon reviews, or even Goodreads. Highlights in your Kindle eBook are all well and good, but I want to know who highlighted it, why they highlighted it, and where they are from. Projects like Read Social are actively trying to engage with this mentality, and I definitely think it’s the way forward. Mixing something like Steam (a platform for selling video games that incorporates community) with books and all they offer seems like a feeding ground.

On that note of mixing games and books, I had a brain spasm the other day. There is a part in my novella where I thought it would be neat to include a bit of interaction, let the reader mix and match paragraphs. Then I thought: why not make it a game? Readers have to get the paragraphs in the correct order so that they can progress to the next page. Make reading fun again!

Then I slapped myself.

No, no, no, that’s not how you do it. Interactivity in text should be, as discussed, through social and additive measures. The key element of a book is the words. How they form is integral to the enjoyment of a good book, and anything that acts as a barrier is ridiculous. Reading is what you do with a book, and the flow comes though various techniques. Thankfully the idea of gamifying literature hasn’t caught on.

And then I flipped the thought.

What about videogames? Where does the flow come from? From playing, obviously. The joy comes from hitting all the right gamic notes, learning through doing (rather than learning from reading). Both games and books have moments to take stock—when the prose is suitably beautiful, we pause and reflect on it; similarly we voluntarily stop  in games when the action climaxes. Why then is standard practice to insert non-game sections to break flow, an authorial hand halting us in our tracks? Why do games bombard us with text and movies and sound that tell us what to do or what the story is, rather than merge it organically with the very act of play? Why is that games have managed to do this in the past, yet it hasn’t become standard? I fear it is because games needed these other media to assert themselves, and now we are left with horrible bastardisations.

Well, that was quite a leap. Just some thoughts I’ve had floating around in my head—maybe they will promote more in yours.

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Novella Peek

So I’m getting through this novella of mine, and I think it could do with a little feedback vis-a-vis form. If you’re at all interested download the file and read the first 9000 words or so of my first draft. In particular, does the first-person narrative work?

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http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9738220/Novella.doc

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