Writing tips

In preparation for the start of National Novel Writing Month on November 1st, here are my writing tips:

  • Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times.
  • Write longhand. Not all the time, but if you don’t, your hands will drop off, and your handwriting will deteriorate.
  • Observe. What kind of person has a license plate saying "ARMY BRAT", or a bumper sticker saying "Vegetarians Taste Better"? Observe and record in your notebook, it’ll be useful later.
  • Listen. Also known as eavesdropping if you’re not discreet enough. People say the oddest things, record them in your notebook.
  • Record. Copy down quotes from books and magazines, calendars and newsletters.
  • Practice. Write often, and try new things like prompts and drabbles. Get hold of some story starters and use them for blog entries. Write book reviews on Amazon.com.
  • Pre-write. Think about what you’re going to write before you get there. Blank pages can be scary if you go alone.
  • Edit. Take something you’ve written and halve the word count. Every word must earn its place.
  • Read. Things you like and things you’ve never thought of. Branch out and explore the Hundred Years War, or string theory, or caffeine. Read some of the classics and find out why they’ve lasted so long.
  • Plan. Have a basic plot outline before you start, know who your main characters are and what they want. Plan disasters for them all.
  • Study. Strunk and White knew what they were talking about, and semicolons come in useful sometimes. Know your writing mechanics.
  • Relax. You can’t write all the time and you need breaks to assimilate ideas. Go for a walk!
  • Write funny. Learn about humour writing (The Comic Toolbox by Jon Vorhaus is a great start) and use it to break up the seriousness.
  • Archive. Store your writing, especially the good stuff, somewhere you can get to it and search through it. Electronic copies make this easier, but back them up offline! Trust not the hard drive alone for he is fickle and easily broken.
  • Take care of yourself. Look away from the screen often, stretch, sleep, exercise, and eat decent meals where the primary ingredient is not grease.
  • Recruit cheerleaders. Get outside support for when the writing stinks, the sky is falling, and your characters are boring.
  • Reward yourself. Plan bribes for hitting milestones and inchpebbles, that CD you’ve been planning to get, yarn, something that will make you smile and remember your achievement.

It’s going to be an interesting November. Plundering a notebook of observations provides ideas when you have none, and dream sequences are good for adding word count. A small USB drive is great for backing up copies of your work, but don’t depend on any one storage method. Email it to a web-based email account as another backup.

I keep HTML files with a list of character names (so I don’t have two people with names starting with S), background info on the main characters, and a plot roadmap split into three acts. Those get zipped and stored with the Word document of the story, saved daily on my USB drive and laptop.

My laptop is currently poorly (something about the display driver, or adapter), I’m really hoping it’s up and running for November.

Maintenance lessons

My first car was a silver Rover Metro 1.3S made in 1981 with a four speed manual transmission and Pirelli P4 low profile racing tires, the license plate was something like SPV 918 W. Dad bought it in 1992 and we cleaned it up, repaired it, and I drove it to Northgate Sixth Form a few times a week. Before I could ever drive it, I had to know how to take care of it. I took each wheel off, picked the stones out with a screwdriver, and put them back with Dad standing by, watching. The car drank oil, so we checked the level weekly and topped it up, along with checking the brake fluid level and coolant. I had to know where to find them all. He also showed me what it’s like to drive a car with a failing clutch plate, how to drive in thick fog on a country lane in the dark with no streetlights, how to take the hairpin turns and steep slopes of Foxhall Hill at 50mph, how to bump start the car with a slight hill after I’d left the headlights on and drained the battery.

My current car is a green Ford Escort SE made in 1998 with a five speed manual transmission. We bought it from England just before we moved to the US, and picked it up from the Ford garage near our apartment in June 1998. All but the first 13 miles on the clock are ours. The "check coolant" light came on a couple of weeks ago. Not all the time, it would come and go. Saturday while Hubby was finishing his sermon for the old folks home I took his car and picked up the coolant. I burned my fingers opening the bonnet because my car was stood on the driveway in the sun all morning. The coolant reservoir was right where I’d left it last time I checked, and well below the fill line. Dad’s trick of using a plastic funnel made sure the coolant got where it needed to go rather than on my feet and all over the engine. Filled up the screen wash for good measure and took it out for a drive. No warning lights, car running smoothly. Thanks Dad.


No-one ever told me before today it is possible to lose a shoe while skydiving. I was with two other first timers, and all three of us immediately tightened our shoes. "If you lose one, just kick the other one off so you don’t look like an idiot," said Carrie, one of the staff. The training video was good, and my instructor (John) was very reassuring. This is a scary thing to see on the wall:

Time slipping away.

Once we were in the plane, my harness was hooked up to a seatbelt and I put the goggles on. The plane door was open until about 3,000 feet. This seemed so very wrong. Planes are supposed to be sealed units, not things with doors you can go out of while it’s in the air! There was a horrible moment of realisation: I was strapped into a sturdy harness. My harness was connected to a guy wearing a parachute. He was going to jump out of the plane. Therefore I was going to jump out of a perfectly serviceable plane that would have to land at some point anyway. The harnesses were connected together, two solo skidivers left the plane, my video woman headed to the door and we shuffled forward. A couple of rocks forward and back and John and I jumped out of the plane.

Exit plane, screaming.

That’s me just out of the plane, screaming. I’m the one on the bottom clutching the harness. If you look really closely you can see my hair tying itself in knots out of sheer terror. I stopped screaming pretty quick. It was cold up there, the wind was noisy and it was hard to breathe. We did some turns left and right, then the parachute went up. The parachute made a hard tug upwards on the harness and suddenly it was quiet. Quiet enough to talk, John checked I was doing OK, I took off the goggles and got to play with the steering toggles. We went through a cloud on the way down, pulled some fast turns, and practiced landing a couple of times. I got to steer the parachute for a while. Landing was easier than I was expecting. John slowed the parachute, and we slid onto the grass, ending up sat down with the parachute deflating behind us. I think we came in at a fast running speed. No bruises, no broken bones, one heck of an adrenaline rush! The pictures are from the DVD they filmed.

Back home, safe.

Got home to find Hubby had picked up my Harry Potter book, and the new Coldplay CD for me. Thank you!

It took a while to stop shaking and catch my breath once I was back on the ground. I really wanted to back out when we hit 14,000 feet and started shuffling to the door. The ground looked so far away. The oddest thing about the parachute ride was feeling like you weren’t moving. The ground was coming towards me, but it felt surprisingly safe and quiet. I wasn’t expecting quiet. It was an amazing ride. I don’t think I could do it solo, but I’m glad I did jump, I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Journal keeping course assignment #1

I’m posting this here because I’m the only one in class who had the book ahead of time (Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson) so everyone else is running a week behind. I hate being first to post. I had my first assignment ready to roll, so I’d value some feedback/criticism on this. I think the ending is lame but I’m not sure what else to do with it.

Assignment #1

Recall your first diary. What did it look like?

When did you get it?

What single good thing did it spark?

If you stopped, what would you miss most?

My first real diary, the first one I had that was private and mine, was nothing special to look at. An A5 hardback book, black cover with red spine and corners and lined paper. I got it from Ryman’s Stationary Shop in Guildford at the top of the High Street in the autumn of 1993. I was eighteen and away from home for the first time. The University of Surrey took me in to study Physics and I gladly left home. I was a real adult now. I could lock my door without fear of recriminations or threats from Mother. I could stay out as late as I chose, tell no one where I was going or when I would be back.

I walked across campus, into town, across the bridge over the rail tracks and the river Wey, up the cobbled street trying to talk myself out of extravagantly wasting two pounds fifty on a stupid notebook. I was on a student grant with barely enough to eat and get books at the same time. Using the overdraft I’d got as a backup would cause an almighty row with Mum and Dad. If I had to eat carrot and herb omelettes three weeks running, that’s what I’d do. They’re not bad after the first week. But I bought the notebook. I had to.

The first page is special; you use special handwriting for it. I wasn’t meant to be right handed, the elementary school teacher didn’t like me alternating hands and everyone else was right handed, why should I be different? On the first page I try extra hard to be neat and make rounded letters. I know five pages later there will be spiky scrawl but on the first few pages I can dream that I know how to write well. There’s always a start and end date on the front page with my name and a volume number. I’m nearing the end of volume twelve now, US volume eight. Volumes thirteen and fourteen are waiting in the closet, blank and hopeful.

The diary represents independence and freedom. It prompted trust between my boyfriend, now my husband of nine years, and me. I knew he would never read it, so I left the first volume with him when I went to stay with my parents for the Easter vacation. When they demanded I fetch my diary for them to read, all they got were a few pages of volume two. Volume one was in Camberley with Hubby-to-be, in workings of his sofa bed away from temptation, safe and unread.

If I stopped writing in it, great swathes of life would go past unrecorded, sunsets and quotes and complaints and dreams all lost. Rereading old diaries is horrifying to see the mess I was in, the storms I had to travel through, but comforting to see how I got through, and with whom.

Therapy cat

Quantum is about two years old now, she was our house warming present from Pat and Jodi. Her tail had been crushed, and then amputated since it wouldn’t have healed, so she’s a bobtail cat. Her previous owners didn’t want her without the tail, we were looking for a cat to put in the new house, so she came to us. Her tail stump was just healed, belly hair all short from spaying, and weighing a mere three pounds.

Quantum as a kitten.

Now she’s pretty much full grown, and thirteen pounds big. You notice this cat when she sits on the AC vent and blocks all air flow to the study, or decides she must get between you and the keyboard. She’s smart enough to never be seen on table tops, or even in mid-leap off the table tops. Quantum is the original therapy cat, around when you need some four-legged comfort, comes running when you call her, usually waiting for me when I get home. She’s mostly silent.

Quantum today.

Tangle is a little more unpolished and a lot more noisy, orange and with a full tail. Probably taken from his mother too soon. He doesn’t eat or drink as tidily as Quantum, throws his tail out behind for all to step on, and is afraid of plastic bags. He does know his name, he just hasn’t got the idea of coming when called. He has three drives: hunger, blind panic, and need for affection. Hates strangers, but he’s very cuddly when the strangers go. Blind panic outweighs need for affection for a while, until hunger sets in. Never get between this cat and the food bowl. Both are “four-wheel drive,” cats with all their claws. Their names are related, Tangle’s full name is Tangle Mint, so we have Quantum and Tangle Mint (quantum entanglement). It’s a Physics geek thing.

Tangle Mint.

Just in case you were thinking this was a blog about knitting. 😉 Thanks for the idea Norma.

Blogger Idol Week Six – Movies

Blogger Idol week five.

Movies that should never be made:

  • Anything based on a video game, or computer game (e.g. Resident Evil, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat). Just don’t go there.
  • Sequels of movies based on games (e.g. Resident Evil 2)
  • Battles that pit the evil bad guys from two totally different movie series against one another (Freddie vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, etc.)
  • Movies that exist solely to try and prove some rapper/model/singer is a really talented person, honest, multi-talented even. You’re not convincing anyone here.
  • Really crappy movies about hacking/programming that think they’re being realistic (e.g. Antitrust, Hackers)
  • Movies with terminal over-reliance on unlikely coincidences (e.g Legally Blonde 2)
  • Sequels (or prequels) of something that was mindless to start with (e.g. Dumb and Dumber-er)
  • Stories with plots a five year old can figure out within five minutes of the start. Script writers should make use of the readily available ISO standard five year old to test plots before filming.
  • Movies with lousy dialog (e.g. “I love you Flash! But we only have seventeen hours to save the Earth!”), unless the dialog is so bad it’s funny.
  • Anything about cats and dogs taking over the world. Such movies are worthy of the term “sucktacular”.
  • Battlefield Earth.

Blogger idol week one: “The 80s”

The big event in the 1980s for me was moving from the new house to That House.

Blogger Idol week one.

The 1980s was when we moved from Stowemarket, a small village in Suffolk, England, to Ipswich, the county town of Suffolk. We bought That House in 1981. It seemed like a decent house in a good neighbourhood. I hated it on sight because there was a dead baby bird on the doorstep when we first saw it. The previous owner had died there and never left. Buying That House meant leaving my best friend in the world, Matthew, who I’d hung out with from nursery school. I learnt to write with him, to fight with him, to run and climb and be popular with him. I even promised to marry him. We were only six years old when I left and never saw him again.

That House was on the corner of the block, one street back from the two-lane 40mph “main” road, part of an estate built in the 1960s. It had two bedrooms but we needed three, a nasty garden that had been neglected since Mr Hunter had died, ants in the back garden, a toilet seat that broke when my sister sat on it, and kitchen cabinets so full of woodworm they looked like frothy coffee. It was all on one level and painted the kind of light green they use to subdue the inmates in mental hospitals. Even the skirting boards were green.

It took two years to build a third bedroom, build a half bathroom, tame the garden, get rid of the green, rebuild the kitchen, build two garden sheds, move the fence, get rid of the peach trees, plant a tarragon bush that wanted to take over the world, pick the stones out of the garden, lay turf, weed the turf, schedule the garden blooms from snowdrops to roses, make it our own. The plan was to move out then. It’s 2004 and my parents are still there.

The hall had a shiny wooden floor my sister and I used to polish. It was smooth enough that we could chase the dog from the lounge out to the hall and watch him run in place, piling up rug against the wall until he finally got enough grip to shoot off into the dining room like a fat brown comet. After he got cancer we buried him in the flower bed he used to excavate. I learnt to knit in that house, taught myself to program, practised playing the flute, tried to learn some woodwork from Dad, cleaned up and drove my first car, gardened, ate, slept, prayed, read, studied for two sets of exams, lived through the 80s. I still don’t like the place, but That House was home.