Thursday, 27 September 2007

Slowing down

I have not gone away (so sorry to disappoint). In case you wondered.

This has not been a hectic daily log of my thoughts and prejudices. It may get even slower.

Those of you curious enough to have read my personal details will know that I have ME and FM. For the uninitiated, ME is a highly debilitating condition in which you feel like you have staggered out of bed with the flu (and I mean influenza, not a 48 hour sniffle) and then run a marathon. You feel like that all the time. Those are your good days.

FM (fibromyalgia) is an equally debilitating condition in which the muscles hurt - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In my case, for the last 14 years. There is no let up. Pain killers strong enough to dull the pain also close down your cognitive abilities. And when they are already affected by ME...

I am not posting this for sympathy (oh well, go on, a little hug doesn't hurt - well it does, but it helps); merely to point out that there is a reason for the erratic nature and snail's pace of these ramblings.

There will be more - watch this space (unless you have something interesting to do like watch some paint dry).

Sunday, 16 September 2007


This wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t bang on for a bit about back-ups. Anyone who knows me already can skip this bit. You'll have read it before. Ad infinitum.

This a hobby horse of mine for a number of reasons. It began in the early ‘70s when I spent a good deal of one year writing my first novel. It was drafted longhand and went everywhere with me so I could work on it. When it was nearly finished it slipped out of my bag on a train and was never seen again. No loss to the literary world, it was still heartbreaking.

I have since gone through a number of traumatic changes of computer, most notably from an Amstrad PCW using 3 inch diskettes to one fitted with a 3½ inch drive; and from that second PCW (using LocoScript software) to a Windows PC. Each time, I was in the heart stopping situation of having all my work on disks with no guarantee that the conversion to a new format would work.

Whether your writings are personal jottings or course work, whether they are letters to the Council or your latest novel, they represent the result of hours (possibly years) of hard work. It would be a shame (not to mention a matter of enormous heartbreak) if you lose that work because your computer crashes, is infected (ant-virus software is an absolute must), is stolen, or floats away on flood water. By the simple expedient of making back-ups of all your work, you can help avoid the possibility of losing years of research, all those essays, all those lovingly crafted poems, short stories, those tens of thousands of words you had produced toward your novel.

Back-ups come in various forms and are achieved via different routes. I hope this guide will help you sort out the most appropriate. It will help, however, if you treat yourself to a good quality manual for your computer’s operating software as well as the word processing software you use. The ‘Complete Idiot’ and the ‘...for Dummies’ series of books are usually very good, but there are others as well.

There are a number of important basic things to keep in mind. The first is that you have to get into the habit of saving your work on a regular basis. Hit the save button every time you pause for thought or go to make a cup of coffee. Computers have auto-save set-ups (open Word, then Tools menu, Options, Save and select auto-save interval), but these don’t necessarily leave you with the material you thought you had. If you hit the save button, you save what is on screen.

The second important thing is that you get into the habit of making back-ups on a regular basis. I do mine daily as part of the closing down process when I have finished working. You can set your machine to do it for you (see below) or you can do it yourself. Either way, regular and often is the important thing.

The next important thing is that if you go away (even to do the shopping); don’t leave your back-ups on your desk next to your computer. If your machine spontaneously combusts, is dropped into Burglar Bill’s Swag Bag, or is otherwise rendered to a non-working pile of garbage, your back-ups stand a very good chance of going the same way. Put them somewhere safe. If you are paranoid (like me) you will have two sets of back-ups; one to keep with you and one to deposit with a trustworthy friend (after, of course, you have set passwords so they can’t steal your bestselling novel or sure-fire blockbusting screenplay).

Fourthly, don’t save your material in an exotic format. Stick to the major forms. Rich Text Format (RTF) is universal. Word documents are nearly universal and are easily converted. If you use obscure word processing software, remember to check when you save a document that it is RTF.

Types of back-up
Hard copy
This does not refer to gritty thrillers. All it means is that you print up your work and put it in a folder. I’m sure you can spot the flaw in this plan straight away, especially if you are on the twentieth draft of your 120,000 word novel. However, you can always keep a hard copy of the final drafts of your work, neatly bound in spring back folders. This means you can refer to work without having to switch on your computer. It also means you get to see your work in print, albeit A4 and one copy only.

Floppy disk
Floppy disks (or 3½ inch diskettes as they are sometimes known) may seem a bit passé to some these days (some computers no longer have floppy drives), but they are an excellent and easy means of keeping copies of your work, especially if you only have a small amount of work or want to transport a small amount from one location to another. They are also easy to use as you can copy work easily from your computer to the disk, using the Copy To facility of your software. A floppy disk will easily hold the full manuscript of a novel (if only publishers would realize this).

Zip Drives
Sometimes known as super-floppies, Zip disks and their drives are no longer as popular as they once were. This is partly because CD and DVD offer greater capacity and more universal application; but also because of a hardware failure that led to legal action against Iomega, the principle manufacturer of the system. When they work, they work well and can read and write at great speed. When they fail, they do so spectacularly, damaging the disks (which then go on to damage the read/write heads in other drives). They are waning in popularity these days. Unless you have a Zip drive already (in which case you know how to use it), look for something else.

Digital Audio Tape systems are also slowly disappearing as they have been superseded by more convenient and capacious media for data storage. As with Zip, unless you have DAT already look for something else.

USB Stick/Pen/Flash Drive
These nifty little gadgets slot directly into a USB port on your computer (that’s one of those little oblong slots). They are as easy to use as a floppy disk, can hold huge amounts of information (up to 2000 times as much as a floppy) and are easy to carry. Please note, if you use one away from your home computer, don’t forget it! I have a friend who works in a University library and they have literally hundreds of these things in a box in the office that students have left behind.

Memory Card
Your digital camera probably has one of these. They can also store data. Some computers and printers have a card slot built in. If not, you can buy card readers that plug into a USB port. Like pen drives, they are easy to carry; like pen drives they are easy to lose and leave behind.

You can copy your work to CDs and DVDs as well. Best to choose rewriteable ones as these can be... well... rewritten over and over. Using them is a little more complex than a floppy or a Pen Drive, but once you get the hang of things, they can contain vast amounts of information as well as collections of pictures, movie, and music. The software required to burn to these disks will be discussed below.

External drive
An external drive is just that. It is the same as your computer’s hard drive, but in a little box that sits on your desk and sometimes winks at you (at least, mine does, the cheeky thing). It can be plugged into your computer via a USB port and can have the same capacity as your computer’s internal hard drive. This means that you can save everything (even your personalised software settings, your e-mail address book, your templates, and so on), all at the click of a button. They come in different shapes and sizes, some being more portable than others. They are the most expensive option, but if you have a lot of material and use your computer a great deal, they are well worth investing in.

CD/DVD burning software
There are a number of packages on the market. If you bought a computer recently, you probably have a basic package pre-installed. They are usually very simple to use and in between compiling discs of your favourite hits, you can copy data (your files) to them. Play with the software and learn how to use it. Some of this software has a facility known as ‘drag-to-disc’ (or variations thereof) whereby you can copy files to CD or DVD in the same way you do to floppy.

External Drive software
You don’t actually need this as you can do it manually, but if you have large numbers of files, it is much better to set up a synchronization software. If you buy an external drive it will come with software – some easier to use than others. I use Allway Sync which is free for light use (and a modest one off charge for heavy use). Details can be found at:

Online Back-up Services
If you have an ‘always on’ broadband connection, you can use one of a number of services that allow you to keep an updated copy of all your work at a remote back-up site. The advantages are that your work is entirely safe from floods, fires, accident and so on. You can also download your files to any computer at any time. The disadvantage is that there's a monthly charge. It isn’t much, but if you are on a budget, it is worth remembering. A number of the larger Internet Service Providers now offer this service along with protection against viruses, spyware, and so on.

As an afterword, it is worth keeping all your software in one place as well. These days it is usually on CD. Buy a zip up CD case (with enough pockets to store what will be an ever growing collection of disks) and keep everything in there (including a list of serial numbers, contact addresses, and other important information). Should your computer crash, should you need to buy a new one, or should you need to get out of the house quickly, your software and your back-ups can go straight in the bag with other essentials and save you much heartache later on.

If you have downloaded software and have no copy on disk, make sure you back it up. Most software licences allow for a back-up disk to be made, and if you are using an external hard drive, you have plenty of room there to make a copy as well.

As another afterword, you will notice the variant spelling of disc/disk. It really depends on which manual you read and I’ve given up trying to be consistent.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Working methods

I am always interested in how writers go about their work. This is not just the everyday nosiness of wondering what their workspace looks like (although it is partly that), but a curiosity about the mental processes involved, how they organize their material, and whether they have specific quirks.

Take me, for example. I cannot sit with my back to the door. I don’t like to do that in any situation, but when it comes to writing it is a big no-no. The same goes for writing in company. I can happily scribble notes and ideas wherever they occur to me, but when it comes to writing proper, I have to be alone. The thought of sitting at the kitchen table whilst the family conducts its merry business about me as I work is the stuff of nightmares.

This is partly because I like to be organized. I have to have everything to hand. My notes are put into ring binders; my reference books have to be in the right order so I can pick them up with having to look; my coffee mug needs to be where the cat won’t shed hairs into it when she wanders across the desk.

But this is just surface stuff. Down in the recesses of the mind where no one else would be wise to venture, I also have to work in a certain way. I didn’t become conscious of this until recently, when I was researching ‘Charlie Cornelius’, but I am extremely visual. That is, I have to be able to see a scene in my head before I can write it down.

The realisation came because ‘Charlie Cornelius’ is the first book I have written with full and fast access to the Internet. I have been able to track thousands of photographs of the period, some of them very specific. As I was doing this, I found I was putting them into folders in story order. I was creating a storyboard, much as they do in the pre-production stage of film making.

I got quite excited about this (sad, isn’t it) and thought back to all the other fiction I had written over the years. My notes were littered with sketches, photos, and references to places I knew well. I remember visiting the locations in Wealden Hill and its sequel, Hob, taking photographs, pacing out and timing distances, making notes. And with the sections in Wealden Hill that take place in faery, vivid dreams came to my aid.

I would, as I did with my other novels, play each scene in my head until I had the background detail, the character’s movements, their speech, their clothes… rehearsing it over and again until I could write a description of the scene as economically as possible.

In some cases, of course, I had to use my imagination. I have never been inside Thames House or handled the trigger mechanism of a nuclear device, let alone watched a zero point energy powered spacecraft emerge from the waters of Loch Ness, but research can make imagining those things so much easier.

Up to now, however, I have not based my characters on real people. That is, I have not used pictures of actual people to generate descriptions. In this respect, Charlie is new step. All the characters have been of my own making, except for Charlie herself. I know precisely what she looks like as an adult as I saw a face and knew that she was Charlie. From that I have been able to construct in my mind a picture of Charlie as a child and how she looks as she grows up. Whether anyone else will recognise the actress on whom her features are based is another matter, but it has, for me, added another dimension to a character who is very much a living being.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Current project

It is entirely possible that you may have noticed a fluctuation in the word count of my current project.

It went up a bit because I took time out to have a quick read of what I’d produced to date. Correcting typos and rewording a few stand-out awkward or ambiguous phrases added a few hundred words.

It went down (by several thousand) as I took the decision to remove the first chapter and put it aside for use elsewhere. Of which, more later.

As a ‘work in progress’, Charlie Cornelius is extremely flexible. This is because I am still unravelling the story, making sense of the content, and thinking about appropriate ways to present the story. What was originally intended as a single, intense, and very dense novel has now evolved into a quartet of novels.

This is not because I have let the story get away from me or because I have started stuffing it with rambling irrelevancies. Rather, it is because I realized two things. The first is that I was looking at the initial idea from the wrong perspective. The second is that I cannot throw my readers (there’s optimism for you) in at the deep end.

The perspective problem came about because I conceived the novel in a relatively short space of time and I was writing before I had any definite idea of the scope. Rather I knew the scope, I knew the story, I knew the style, but I had not unpacked that and thought about it too deeply before I began writing. I just wanted to get on with it.

It came as a bit of a surprise when the first section which was intended to be no more than 20,000 words hit the 40,000 mark without covering half of what I wanted to be in there. That prompted the need to sit back and unpack my ideas a bit more; think a bit more about the structure.

The original concept, viewed from different perspectives, showed a greater wealth of material than I had thought possible. And whilst it was exciting in one respect to think I had a four novel cycle beginning to flower, it was daunting to think the original 80,000 words would probably only account for the first novel. A little ‘girding of the loins’ became the order of the day.

As I have already mentioned, Charlie 1 will cover the period of the Second World War; Charlie 2 the late ‘50s and early ‘60s; Charlie 3 the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; and Charlie 4 an unspecified period but ranging across the whole of the twentieth century. It is this unpacking that occasioned the rethink of style.

Charlie Cornelius has elements of a picaresque. Whilst Charlie is not a rogue or 'low-life', she is often pushed to break the law in order to survive and later finds herself increasingly in conflict with the status quo. Its episodic nature allows for a more flexible approach to narrative and to the whole process of storytelling. I wanted to do something a little unconventional with the structure, but I also wanted the work to appeal to readers who might not normally pick up a work that is ‘experimental’.

By extending the length of Charlie Cornelius I found I would be able to take my readers on a journey. Starting with fairly conventional narrative techniques, I would have the room to invite readers into more unconventional structures. This is one reason why the original Prelude has now been moved to a more fitting place as a Coda to Charlie 4.

How much of this makes sense without you being able to see the text is debatable. I post the first draft of each chapter on a closed forum where it is read by a number of folk, some of whom are kind enough to give me feedback. That there are more readers now than when I first started posting means one of two things. I am either getting it right and producing something of interest; or people just enjoy a good disaster.