Ever have one of those unexpected weeks where you learn a lot about yourself?
I guess we all learn something new every day, or at least we should otherwise we might as well be toasters, or some other more or less inanimate object.
In an effort to write at least one post per week I thought I’d share what I’ve learned since my previous post. And whilst some of it may strike you as odd or down right silly, other parts will hopefully make sense.
On the drive home from work this afternoon the topics I considered writing about included:
- How to avoid unwary pheasants on country roads.
- Driving and paying it forward.
- Writing dialogue.
- Avoiding zombies in the woods.
- Practical planning of my next writing project.
- Why smiling at people is important, but knowing when and where to do it is the key.
- Taking a break from the screen and enjoying the simple things.
- Why I always seem to run out of Vimto when I most need it.
Quite the varied list wouldn’t you say, dear blog reader? Kinda funny how random thoughts pop into your head when you’re driving. I guess I could write about all of these but I’d rather narrow it down to keep the title of post consistent with the content.
Aww, c’mon Dave, give us the whole thing.
Quickly then, these topics didn’t make the cut for longer discussion:
Not so much a learning curve, more of a note to self to be more aware of wandering pheasants on country roads. Pheasants and other feathered creatures don’t seem capable of understanding the big noisy thing rushing toward them isn’t a friend. Or perhaps they just don’t give a shit.
Pheasants dart, dodge, weave, meander and flap in a haphazard manner that makes them hard to predict. I’ve had 3 near misses this week.
One turned and head bobbed its way back to the hedgerow.
The second stopped in the middle of the road, attention seized by some random bit of nothing on the tarmac, before casually strolling away.
The third (today’s close encounter) decided to take flight half way across the road, even though I’d slowed down enough to avoid it.
When the flapping nutcase sailed up my windscreen I was reminded of bullet time from the Matrix – slo-mo pheasant drifting over my car, me turning to following its trajectory (at this point I threw in some imaginary bullets and explosions) and then breathing a sigh of relief to see Agent Pheasant glide into a hedge.
It’s my theory that pheasants are part bird and part cartoon.
Driving and paying it forward.
I’m a big believer in the ethos of paying things forward – enlighten someones day with a smile, gesture or encouraging comment for example, and in theory they’ll pass on that same positive vibe to someone else.
Again on my drive home I arrived at a junction and saw a family of cyclists coming, mommy, daddy and a little girl around 7 with a bright pink crash helmet and big clunky feet.
Rather than pull up right to the junction line, I slowed down and stopped about 10 feet away. As a kid I remember being nervous of cars when out cycling – all flappy arms, wobbly handle bars, unsteady feet, worried about falling off, worried about looking stupid or doing the wrong thing…and so on.
So I gave the kid some visual reassurance by keeping my distance. Otherwise she might have panicked thinking I wasn’t going to stop, fall over, graze her knee very lightly (she was moving about half a mile an hour) and I’d have to deal with stern looks from mum and dad, or worse.
The family passed by and as a thank you the dad, bringing up the rear, gave me a nod and a quick casual salute.
That made me smile.
I shared the road with my fellow humans and everyone was happy.
It’s all well and good keeping a pay-it-forward ethos in your noggin, and the world is always a better place when we help each other out, but there’s a time and place for it.
I like smiling.
It makes me happy.
I smile at people in the supermarket when I manoeuvre the trolley away from a collision. I smile at my colleagues because not everyone is as happy as I am, and sometimes a smile can the spirit of others who aren’t having a good day.
I smile at the dogs when I come in the door. They smile with their tails.
We should try to smile more.
However, not everyone is as receptive to a smile as I had thought.
In the supermarket today, I smiled at a couple of kids ahead of me when their mum told them to “stop fucking about and get of the fucking way”.
I know, shocking right? These kids were about 12 years old. I offered the harassed mum a smile as if to say “don’t worry, everything’s cool” but she was busy texting and fondling bananas to smile back.
I aimed my smile at the kids who, after being chastised by what they considered a vague authority figure at best, continued to push and shove each other in front of me.
My mind had wandered somewhat so I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings. Somehow the physical attributes of my body and the busy mind were out of sync for a moment, so my smile stayed glued to my face a little longer than normal.
It wasn’t until I replayed what the kids said to each other that my miscommunicating brain and mind became apparent.
Kid 1 said something like: “What’s he smiling at?”
Kid 2: “Your face.”
Kid 1: “What’s he smiling at me for?”
Kid 2: “Because he’s a twat.”
Kid 1 to Kid 2: “You’re a twat.”
Kid 1: “No fucks given.”
I like to think Kid 1’s last comment was offered with a shrug. After that I assumed they carried on fighting. But it highlighted the fact that a smile too much can be unnerving for some people, or lost on them entirely.
The Peak Vimto issue.
I like Vimto squash. Not the fizzy stuff which tastes weird and alien with all the bubbles. I stopped drinking caffeinated drinks at Christmas 2013 because they were mucking about with my sleep. Vimto has no caffeine or aspartame in it (man, I wish I knew how to pronounce aspartame) and makes water taste nice.
Lately I’ve found that when writing I reach out for my favourite beverage and find a measly dribble lurking at the bottom of the glass. Off to the kitchen I go.
“Tra-la-la. Gonna get me some Vimto because writing be thirsty work!”
I spy the empty bottle.
In my mind I collapse to my knees, throw my hands in the air and scream:
But I don’t because I’m not a cat.
I stand there, glass in hand, questioning why I didn’t stock up on Vimto. How could I have been so foolish? I knew I was planning on a marathon writing session and I’d want a refreshing drink to help lubricate my imagination gears.
I was blind to the hazards of Peak Vimto.
Never again. I’m going to plaster the fridge in post-its: BUY VIMTO! BUY VIMTO NOW! HAVE YOU BOUGHT VIMTO YET?
Sad truth is I’ll probably forget and wind up back in Parchedville which is right next door to NowIHaveToDrinkPlainWater Town.
What a bummer.
Okay, now we can move on.
Beats and Tags!
I’m always learning about writing and love writing dialogue. Often I get caught up in the moment, my fingers zoom across the keyboard and my brain struggles to keep up. Later on a beta reader may point out that certain bits of dialogue were hard to follow.
I’ll read then read aloud until I can see where the flow breaks down and agree with them.
Read your writing out loud, dear blog reader, trust me, it really helps!
In the process of learning how to improve my dialogue I came across a guide on Amazon called How to Write Dialogue by Marcy Kennedy, part of her Busy Writer series.
If you don’t know Marcy, and you’re a keen writer, I suggest you check out her blog – http://marcykennedy.com and also her ebook guides for writers.
The guide is short but it packs a lot in.
I’ve known about beats and tags for a long time, though I admit I haven’t always employed them in the most effective way. Reading Marcy’s guide has helped me really think about my dialogue.
I’ve slowed my fingers down to give my brain time to tell/show the reader who’s saying what, where, why and how. For example, knowing when to use a beat or a tag.
A tag is a word like said or asked. A beat is a bit of action used either instead of a tag or to show a character doing something that relates to what they’re saying.
I think that’s right. Well, saying, thinking, acting, feeling, whatever shows the reader something about that character.
You can use one or the other but not both.
“I’ve got to shoot that zombie,” Benny said, loading his big gun.
Which is bad.
Benny loaded his big gun. “I’ve got to shoot that zombie.”
“I’ve got to shoot that zombie,” Benny said.
How To Write Dialogue is a fine tool for making you think about how your dialogue really works. There are even practical steps you can take to help you highlight errors and improve dialogue in your writing project.
After digesting the guide, thinking, sleeping, thinking, working and reading Marcy’s dialogue guide for a second time, I read through The Range and found I had used both a beat and a tag together in a number of places.
And it didn’t look right.
Funny how you stumble across things that can help improve your writing tool box isn’t it?
Knowledge is indeed power.
I thoroughly recommend you grab a copy of that guide if you’re serious about improving your craft as a writer.
Running away from zombies!
Anything zombie gets a big thumbs up from me. They’re scary and fascinating at the same time. Last week I downloaded a game called DayZ from Steam. It’s in alpha testing phase at the moment and the creators are keen to stress that various features may not work perfectly.
AFter watching a bunch of YouTube videos I was hooked. DayZ is a weird game. It’s based in a fictional place somewhere near Russia called Chernarus, and the game area is 225 square km. Pretty big considering there are a maximum of 40 players per server.
Once downloaded I set about learning the controls, which were pretty fiddly with lots of keyboard stuff. It needs support for a game controller. But once I got the hang of it I headed off to the nearest town for a bit of scavenging.
The purpose of DayZ is to stay alive. Find clothing, food, water, a weapon and stay alive as long as possible. The DayZ website states the average life span of a player is 1 hour 9 minutes. And there’s a good reason why.
Not only are there zombies, fast screaming things that come out of nowhere, but other players are hunting you too. You’d think players would band together and face the zombie scum but they don’t. Not that I’ve noticed. Many will shoot you on sight and loot your corpse for whatever you’ve managed to scavenge.
First time I saw another player he shot me at the top of some stairs.
My next respawn I lasted about 30 minutes when another player yelled: “Die fucker!” and shot me.
After that I decided to avoid built up areas and headed into the woods. To enjoy some atmospherics I dropped headphones over my noggin, then wished I hadn’t.
When playing a game like DayZ, desktop stereo speakers can tell you that a sound is coming either left or right but always in front of you.
Headphones make you think. They make you question where a certain sound is coming from. They cause you to feel threatened, on edge, wary and offer an unexpected feeling, that of being very aware of your own mortality. Or at least that of your character.
Little things like a twig snapping behind you, a muffled scream that could be a mile away or a few feet to your left. Every tiny sound made me jerk the mouse left and right to see if anyone or anything was about to attack me and either eat my face or shoot me.
Yes, it’s just a game, but for an hour or so I was running around the bleak landscape of Chernarus, frightened of what lay around the next bend in the road, what was coming at me through the trees, what would I find in the next abandoned building and if I would survive long enough to meet someone who didn’t kill me on sight.
A writer must not come to the page lightly.
Stephen King once wrote:
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names.
You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
Yet the juxtaposition of that is treating writing like a business, if you are indeed serious about it. How can a writer write every single day when there are times when they cannot come to the page any way other than lightly? Is every writer able to bring all that to the page each and every time?
Side thought: I’ve so wanted to use that word for a long time, and now I have I’m sure it’s wrong.
There have been times when I’ve forced out a hundred words or so, only to turn off the screen and walk away because I wasn’t ready to kick ass and take down names.
I need that mood, that drive, that need to create before my fingers will sync with my brain. Some may say “write anything dude, so long as you write” but I don’t get on well with that point of view. I rebel against writing trash for the sake of making words appear on the screen and upping my word count.
Fear and writing.
In DayZ I found fear I hadn’t experienced for a long time in playing video games. Not since that demon dog burst through the window in Resident Evil, or the crackling sound on the radio in Silent Hill.
What I found interesting was how this strange mix of fear, adrenaline and heightened senses related to my writing. The fact that I felt very immersed in the world of DayZ prompted me to think how I described tense and disturbing scenes. For me writing is about exploring the distant corners of Imaginationland and leading the reader to those places.
Visual stimuli are very important to me when writing. Often when reading a book I find there are few other sensory hooks, other than sight, that embed me in that world. I want things like taste, touch, smell and that need to listen to a scraping sound just around the corner as much as the character in the scene.
Hearing scary noises whilst playing DayZ has encouraged me to consider every sense a character has at their disposal to describe the world I want the reader to explore.
Just as I’m grateful for many things in life, I owe a nod of thanks to fear.
I want my readers to be right beside my characters, sharing that same sense of fear when that sphincter clenching noise happens just around the corner.
Taking SK’s advice I’m approaching the page with fear in mind.
Fear is often shunned in favour of happy fun times.
But once you learn the nature of fear you might find it can be quite intoxicating.