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Monday, 9 January 2017

Bullet Journaling

I start off every year with a new diary, and can't wait to start recording everything from January 1st onwards. Sad to say, I've never managed a year where every single day of my diary has been filled in.  I keep a notebook with me to write down any ideas, but I usually forget to transfer them across to my diary. It's so dispiriting to miss a day (or two, or more) then come back to find those blank spaces staring up, as full of reproach as they are empty of words. 

Late last year I started experimenting with bullet journaling. The official description from Ryder Carroll, who is credited with inventing the system says:
"The Bullet Journal is a customizable and forgiving organization system. It can be your to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, but most likely, it will be all of the above. It will teach you to do more with less"

I use an A4 book of squared paper, which is really useful as I can draw sketch plans of my garden, write diary entries and develop tick-box schedules all in one place. That's much less annoying than having a conventional diary stuffed with odd sheets of graph paper and lists, but it seems a bit of a retrograde step. My OH has spent the last twenty years trying to get me to store everything on my computer, but I've never yet managed to create a paperless office. With this new system, it won't be appearing in 2017, either! 

I start each month by listing the days on one page, where I include birthdays and appointments. The next page is my task list for the month, then the following pages devote a double-page spread to each week, where I make short notes on what I've done on each day.  

When it comes to actually making entries, the shorter the better. Bullet points are best, and you can develop your own system of symbols to save space. You can always include a link to where you've made longer notes. 

Bullet journaling is wildly popular, and it's easy to see why. This is diary-keeping for the Crafting generation. You can spend hours developing your own system of note-taking, and then embellishing it. There are so many stickers, stamps and other beautiful things available at places such as Hobbycraft, the idea of making each day quite literally follow your own design and letting your creative hair down is very tempting. 

Maybe things will improve as I refine my system, but at the moment I find writing out the days of the month several times in different ways a bit repetitive. I enjoy the setting out of pages, decorating them and indexing, but it's absorbing far more of my time than ordinary diary-writing ever did (when I did it). That's a warning sign for me. If I didn't have enough time to write in an old-style diary every day, the chances are I soon won't be able to find the time to tag, colour and cross-hatch my work either!

You can find out more about bullet journaling here

Do you keep a diary? And is it online, or in a dedicated, real-life book?

Monday, 2 January 2017

Cryptozoology—The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name...



A Kelpie.  Or maybe a horse, standing in water...
Review of Cryptozoologicon Vol I, by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen and Darren Naish. ISBN 978-1-291-62153-2

My guilty secret is out. DD discovered a few months ago that I love to be scared witless at the idea of mysterious creatures,  whose natural habitat is the urban myth. She bought me Cryptozoologicon Vol I for Christmas, and it's a winner.

As a child, I listened to months of reports filed from Darkest* Africa by James Powell's expedition who were hunting for the fabulous Mokele-Mbembe. In common with the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, the shadowy dinosaur-like Mokele-Mbembe managed to keep one step ahead of all its pursuers, despite their highly developed brains, opposable thumbs and state-of-the-art equipment. Nobody Powell's team spoke to had ever seen the thing themselves, but their grandfather's neighbour's cousin's wife, or the delivery man's son's best friend knew someone who'd...well, you get the general idea.  Mokele-Mbembe was always somewhere else. It was off on its travels, rumoured to be terrorising the next village along the Congo. Funny, that.

Like Comet Kohoutek and the Millenium's River Of Fire, media excitement was in inverse proportion to results in the search for Mokele-Mbembe. Those African folk employed exactly the same technique English villagers use.  When strangers roll into town asking questions, tell them exactly what they want to hear.  Nod, and smile confidently at any pictures or maps they show you. Then point them a few miles further down the track, where they'll find someone who knows a lot more than you do. That gets rid of your pesky visitors, and often earns you a big fat tip into the bargain.


London's River Of Fire? Or tail of a Bird Of Paradise?
Three cheers, then, for scientist Dr Darren Naish and his fellow contributors to Cryptozoologicon! They aren't taken in by this sort of malarkey, whether home-grown or exotic. They set out to shine a light on the sloppy and wishful thinking that brings cryptozoology into disrepute, and their illustrated book does exactly that.

Cryptozoologicon asserts that "...cryptozoology should be seen as a mixture of sociology, psychology and ethnology as well as zoology." With this objective in mind, the book examines a selection of weird and wonderful creatures. Each is given a chapter to itself, and an illustration.  These are often quirky, and quite honestly with a few exceptions they aren't as entertaining as the text. One of those exceptions is the Chupacabra on Page 34, illustrated by John Conway. A thing more of suggestion  than detail, it stopped me going out into woods after dark for a night or two, I can tell you!

Like all the best books, Cryptozoologicon produces nuggets of fascinating (and genuine) information where you least expect it. If you've ever wondered how bats evolved or why there aren't any large, water dwelling marsupials, this book gives you the answers. It also gives a disturbing insight into how images can be manipulated. A prime instance of this is the De Loys' ape.  In one of my few criticisms of this book, Cryptozoologicon provides only a re-imagined illustration, when it needs the inclusion of the original photograph in its cropped and uncropped versions (you can find both at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Loys'_Ape).  Touted as a missing-link ancestor of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the De Loys' ape was publicised by anthropologist George Montandon, at around the time the dangerous idea of eugenics came into the public arena. Go figure, as our American brothers and sisters (every one of them sprung from Eve, whether mitochondrial or biblical) would say.

I loved this book, especially as it seems to support a theory I've held for a while. At least some of these creatures owe their existence to what the emergency services call "false alarms with good intent". 


Mum! The babysitter's here!
Imagine you are the parent of a mischievous Bronze-Age child, and living in the middle of Flag Fen. Their accident-prone antics drive you insane. Which is the best way to stop him or her from drowning—a) scream at them at least ten million times a day to keep away from the water or b) invent some terrifying creature living in the bottomless depths that will carry him/her and their friends down to its watery lair, to be gobbled up at leisure?


Answer a) relies on constant watchfulness and repetition, and every parent knows children are selectively deaf at the best of times. Accidents happen the second your back is turned, so why not recruit a watcher in the deep? One who never sleeps, and is always on the lookout for an easy meal,  mwahaha...

To sum up, if you're absolutely certain those noises you heard while camping were the mating cries of Bigfoot, and that breeze rushing past your face on a midnight walk was your close call with an Aloo, Cryptozoologicon is most definitely NOT the book for you.

On the other hand, if you're fascinated by why legends are born and develop, and how people always try to explain away the unusual, you'll devour this book like a hungry Kelpie.

* we were allowed to call Africa (and Peru) that, in the far-off days of childhood fiction.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Lights In The Darkness...

I haven't blogged for a while as my mother is dangerously ill, so everyday life has taken a back seat. Between the Winter Solstice on 21st December and the start of the New Year, the days here are short and dark. It's no wonder candles and coloured lights are so important during the holiday season. 

However you celebrate at this time of year, within whatever faith or maybe none at all, I hope you have a lovely time. Remember what the Dalai Lama says; My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness. Keep your friends and family close in your hearts, and give them an extra hug whenever you can. 



Monday, 14 November 2016

Writing Your Book, Part Six—Beating The Curse Of The Saggy Middle....

This week marks the half-way point for everyone trying to write a novel in a month by taking part in NaNoWriMo 2016. Writing any book at any time is hard work, but around about now momentum slows. Authors hit a roadblock.  We slump against it, and so does our work. The Great British Bake-Off suffers the curse of the soggy bottom.  Writers live in fear of their manuscript having a saggy middle. Here are three ways to beat the block…

Bogart and Bacall in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep
Blast Your Way Through

Raymond Chandler wrote his best-selling crime fiction at high speed. He was a master of the all-action, snappy story. He said his specific method for beating any block in the type of book he wrote was to have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. I’m not suggesting you take Chandler literally, but throwing something unexpected into your fictional mix can kick-start your writing when you’re stuck. How would your major character react if they lost everything in a fire? Let them swing into action during a local disaster, or a national emergency. Remember, your fictional people aren’t only brought to life by the insights you give readers into their thoughts and actions. The way they interact with others shows us more facets of their characters.

It's a thought...
Tunnel Underneath

If you’ve read Part Five of Writing Your Book (you can find it here), you’ll know I’m a great believer in the power of dirty drafting. Let your ideas tumble out and capture them in a fast and furious stream of consciousness. There’ll be plenty of time to work on the finer points of your story in later drafts, but when you’re stuck at the mid-point of your story, try burying some treasure among your major characters. Dig down into the core of their being. Give them a phobia, a cause that’s dear to their hearts, an unusual hobby, or a tragic past. Forget about beating your word-count for an hour or so, and give yourself the freedom to have fun planting clues. Your iron-jawed Alpha male may never be blackmailed over his secret love for flower-arranging* in your final draft, but it would explain his appreciation of structural integrity and design.

*like many a samurai general, as your feral hero can explain with relish to his arch-enemy and potential blackmailer…

Go Over, Or Swerve

Warning: This method is an out-and-out cheat, so it’s only to be used in your first draft, when you’re really stuck. 

Abandon your work at the point where you're flagging, and type the words With one bound (s)he was free in centred, 20-point bold text. Then move straight on to whichever future scene in your story takes your fancy. You’ll be inspired, and the words will flow again. By the time you’ve finished your first draft and started going through your manuscript a second time, your subconscious will have collected your later ideas at the roadblock, ready for some remedial work. 

Whatever you do, don’t sell your readers short by using this third device  or anything like it in your final manuscript. They’ll be burning your book and flaming you alive online before you can say “…and she woke up to find it was all a dream…”!

Monday, 7 November 2016

Writing Your Book, Part Five—Getting Down And Dirty...

One of my three top tips in Part One of Writing Your Book is to create a “dirty” draft. This involves dashing off the first version of your book as fast as you can. 

If your writing time is limited, concentrate your creative energy on getting words down, rather than building images in your readers’ minds. The fun of doing that comes later, when you refine and polish your completed story.

Adapt the Pomodoro technique to help you squeeze every second out of your writing time. That is, set a kitchen timer for thirty minutes, write as fast as you can until the alarm goes off, then take a ten-minute break.

Don’t worry about adding details of your characters’ appearance, or your story’s setting at this stage. You’ll be going back over your work to add this later, along with research details, and spelling, grammar and punctuation checks. 

Getting your thoughts down in words in a high speed stream has some great advantages. You see real progress, fast. There’s nothing like a rapidly growing word count to feed your enthusiasm. Making a note of your daily word count is a real incentive to beat that figure the next time you sit down to write. If you’re taking part in NaNoWriMo, feeding that figure into the community makes you part of the successful process.
http://mybook.to/HeartOfAHostage
“Let me have this one night with you, to remember...”
or http://bit.ly/2euCc60 (US)


The feeling of satisfaction is amazing. When you forge ahead, trying to do as much as you can in the shortest possible time, you carve straight through those nasty briar patches marked doubt and delay threatening to block the path of every writer. Think of an icebreaker ploughing through the Southern Ocean. Keep your head down, and keep going.

You’re never lost for words. It’s impossible to edit a blank page, but once you get something down in black and white, you can go back and develop your work by adding colour, detail and shades of meaning. Conflict drives the best stories, and its most reliable power source is dialogue between great characters. Put their emotions and arguments down into conversation. You can worry about the scenery later. 

The line of dialogue; ...let me have this one night with you, to remember... popped into my head as I woke up one morning. I built the story of Heart Of A Hostage around it by imagining how that conversation started, and how it would end. By writing that out as fast as I could, I made a commitment to write the book which has become one of my favourites. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

Writing Your Book, Part Four—On Your Marks, Get Set...


...and this is what you get after completing your marathon!
...Go!

November 1st each year fires the starting gun on National Novel Writing Month. Join up, and you commit to writing 50,000 words over the month of November (that works out at a shade under 1,700 words a day)

If you've read Part One of this series, (you can find it here), you'll know that making a firm commitment and telling other people what you're going to do makes it easier to succeed. Putting the news out there gives you an immoveable target, and spreading the word makes it harder for you to back out!

There are all sorts of participation and milestone badges to achieve through NaNoWriMo as you work toward the goal of writing your book.  Fill in your profile on the NaNoWriMo site to link up with thousands of other authors. You'll find encouragement, and you can then pay it forward by helping others through their own sticky writing patches.

Any completed word count is a success story. If you achieve the ultimate and manage to reach the heroic target of 50k words, you're judged a winner. You get a fancy certificate, like the one above. More importantly, you'll have the satisfaction of proving to yourself you can stick with your project for a concentrated period of thirty days.

I find NaNoWriMo really useful spur to productivity. It gives me the motivation to start a project, and other members give me the support to continue. Why not try it this year? You can find out more at NaNoWriMo.org—sign in, and you'll be ready for Day One tomorrow!

Monday, 24 October 2016

Writing Your Book, Part Three: Author! Author! Audience! Audience!

Let The Fun And Games Begin...
Deciding who will be your audience is a vital first step.  It affects everything, from the tone of your writing to whether you’ll aim for publication, or write simply for the pleasure of producing a finished piece of work.  

ONE IS ONE 
If you write only to please yourself, your audience may be small, but you’ll satisfy one hundred percent of it.

Always write what you want to read.  Then you’ll write from the heart. That’s the quickest way to appeal to other readers, too, if you decide to expand your market. It’s a great help when the going gets tough, too. As long as you’re enthusiastic about your work, you can get through the tough times. 

If you really can’t face cobbling together any more of the Game Of Thrones fanfic you’re only writing in the hope of selling a million, your writing life will become a living hell (dragons optional).

Befriend A Bookseller Today...
TWO’S COMPANY
Identify wider markets using the same process you used to decide what to write. If you love your work, it’s more likely to be appreciated by people like you. Keep your ear to the ground at your place of work, and any clubs, societies and social media groups you belong.  You’ll discover the subjects, people and places they enjoy, and the authors they like to read. 

Pick up on what’s popular in your circles. Read the books that are recommended by word-of mouth, which is always the most powerful selling tool. You’ll discover how to pitch your language and style to appeal to your prospective readers. Make use of your local independent bookshop. Keep them in business. One day you might need them to sell your book.  

Join online sites like Goodreads, to discuss with others what makes a book enjoyable, rather than just readable. Check out the best seller lists to get a feel for genre and length. Become your local library’s best customer.  Read as widely as you can, and try writing in different genres to find out where you’ll find the best fit.

Do your research into all possible markets beforehand. Write your own book, but with half an eye on what has worked for other people.  When you get to the stage of trying to sell your book, you’ll be tapping into a ready market.


The end result...myBook.to/HisMajestysSecret
THREE’S A CROWD
This is where you head out into the wide, often dangerous waters of aiming to catch an agent, or a publisher. Once upon a time publishing houses had huge advertising budgets, and handed out advances like chocolate at Christmas. All the author had to do was turn up at catered events, sign a few books, and smile. 

Those days are gone. Now you have to be prepared to work every bit as hard at promoting and selling your own work as if you were self-publishing. That’s an option I’ll discuss in a future blog, but there are big advantages in being published by a firm with enough staff to take some of the responsibility off your shoulders. Writing is more fun than selling, but you’ll have to do a fair bit of that even if you’re published by one of the big international publishing houses.  These days, they’re risk-averse and won’t take an author on unless they can guarantee a return on their investment. 


If you follow my tips for researching your market beforehand, you’ll be ready to sell hard, and sell well.