Putting Pen To Paper

I come today with a statistic:

You will write a novel 50% faster using a computer, but will be 85% more likely to finish if you write longhand.

Here’s another one:

42% of statistics are invented.

Regardless of the evidence behind a statistic, their real beauty is in making us think. Do I actually write faster with a computer? Should I be considering writing longhand?

It turns out that I am far from the first to have these questions. I found a case study examining how people’s writing environment affects the way they write (via Livia Blackburne).

Participants were asked to write two reports, one on the computer, and one with pen and paper. They were given the same amount of time and preparation for each; all that changed was their writing implements.

The study observed that those writing on a computer took half the time and wrote 20% more. However, their writing style was more fragmented, with frequent pauses mid-sentence. Those writing with pen and paper would only pause between sentences or paragraphs, however their pauses were longer.

More interestingly (for me), revision methods differed between typers and writers: those using a computer made 80% of their revisions in the first draft, whereas the pen-pushers only made 50%.

If you write with pen and paper, you’ll spend less time fussing over the first draft and just get on with it.

Yes, you’ll have to do more revision later on. But coming from someone who’s struggling to get a first draft finished, the old tools of the trade are starting to look oh-so-appealing.

Who knew that the infernal inner editor I’ve mentioned before could be put off so easily? You can’t easily move paragraphs around on a piece of paper, and the inner editor is far too lazy to get involved.

What are you waiting for? Let’s put pen to paper.

GUN GIRL

“This was NOT what I agreed to.”

Chris had already settled deep into the sofa, controller in his hand, video game loading. “Come on, Susie. I said we’ll talk, so we’ll talk. We’ll just play video games at the same time. My time’s precious, you know. Multi-tasking is where it’s at.”

She sat reluctantly into a crease made by another bum. A bigger bum, she decided snarkily, wiggling to get comfortable before the I’m-a-bitch guilt could kick in.

(Ex-girlfriends are fair game, she sternly told her conscience.)

“This game is incredible,” Chris said, handing her the console. “I’m utterly hooked.”

How it differed from any other point-and-shoot game was beyond Susie, but she smiled and nodded. When Chris wasn’t looking, she wiggled further across the sofa, doing her best to iron out every trace of his ex.

“So,” she began, “how’ve you been holding up?”

He tensed, wouldn’t look at her. “Fine. But about this game–”

“You haven’t left the house in a week, Chris. People are worried. I’m worried.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. It’s not because of…” He couldn’t even bring himself to finish the sentence. “It’s this game, honestly. It’s largely formulaic, until it’s not, and then it’s–”

Time to change tactics. She aimed at the approaching zombies. “Firing laser gun! Poi poi poi!

“–WOW. Wait a minute.” He hit pause, stared at her. “Laser guns do NOT go poi. They go… umm… pew?”

She raised her eyebrow. “Mine’s a Japanese model. It’s the best of the best.”

“Whatever they do, it’s not poi.”

“You know what? I’ll forgive you for not knowing the truth.” She put down her controller and turned to face him. “Laser guns are mostly used in deep space, where no one can hear your gun go pew. But if they could, they’d know that you’d bought a Chinese rip-off.”

He rolled his eyes. “Surely Chinese guns go pong.”

“Now you’re just being racist.”

He cracked a smile, then, the first genuine smile since she’d arrived.

The silence between them stretched, held.

“You couldn’t have known she was a fake,” Susie said gently. “But you’re better off without her. You deserve the best.”

His smile trembled. “Poi poi poi from here on out.”

“Exactly,” Susie said, before hitting play and killing more wide-assed zombies.

THE STRANGE FAMILIARITY

The love is gone.

When she looks at him, striding towards her across the busy square, she is looking at a stranger. Even the pigeons disown him, scattering from his every footstep.

In the intervening months his hair has grown longer than she’s ever seen it before. But even though it is he who has been off travelling the world, she is the one who has changed.

The kiss he drops on her lips is impersonal. How much of that is in her mind and how much of it is him?

“I missed you,” he says.

“I missed you, too.” The you she remembers, not this man before her. The strange familiarity of his scent disconcerts her; when his fingertips brush her arm she feels vulnerable.

She lets him take her hand because that’s what they used to do, and walks with him through the crowds of tourists and cajoling street vendors. The air is hot and heavy. Perspiration beads on her upper lip.

They turn down a narrow side street lined with canopies. Tucked away down an alley is their usual cafe, too small and grubby on the outside to attract  tourist attention. It has no AC either; the fans swinging in lazy circles overheard are barely more than decorative.

Months ago they’d agreed this place served the best coffee in town. Now she sits opposite him grimacing through each sip and wonders what else has changed.

He speaks at length about his travels, the things he’s seen and the people he’s met. His speech is as slow and measured as she remembers, his gestures as grandiose. But their familiarity has passed the threshold of affection. His every character quirk is now another aspect to dislike.

When he presents the gift to her, with a flourish, she wonders how many others he has bought.

He finally notices her expression and says: “You know.”

Her neck stiffens, but she manages to nod. “How long…” The question isn’t worth finishing.

“I’ll be moving in a month… and you know how I feel about long distance relationships. They don’t work.”

She stares. This isn’t the answer she’s expecting.

“Look,” he says, “I know I should have told you months ago, but… You knew I wouldn’t stay in this town forever. We’ve still got a month left. Why don’t we enjoy it, and worry about the rest later?”

“You’re moving.” The words are flat and hard and not the slightest bit shaky. “I didn’t know.” Now she can truly see how much his familiarity has blinded her. She pulls her hands out of his reach, folds them in her lap.

Finally she has the strength to say the words that have burned inside for months: “Have you told all the other girls you’re stringing along, or am I the first to know?”

ACRIMONIOUS

It started slowly, his cheeks reddening, his eyelids twitching with the pressure. Droplets of sweat rolled down his forehead, beading in his eyebrows.

The air was hot and sticky, the glass table between them an iceberg. Louise lay her hands on the table and stared at him until the cracks began to show.

His cheeks pushed together as if an invisible band was wrapped around his head. His eyes bulged, his wheezing breaths grew laboured, and the musky stench of fear rolled off of him in waves.

There! A hairline crack on his forehead as his skin began to tear. Another crack, and another–

–and then his head imploded.

Only his lower jaw remained intact as blood and brains spattered across the room, painting polka dots across the table.

Her lips were salty with blood.

“What are you staring at?”

Snapped out of her daydream, Louise smiled coldly and stared at her husband straight in the eye.

“Nothing,” she said. She picked up the a fountain pen and signed the divorce papers with a flourish.

How To Start Writing Again

I’ve been thinking about how to rediscover the joy of writing.

How do I recapture that feeling, that nervous excitment as the words flow, that sense of urgency?

The answer escaped me until I sat down to write this post. Because right now, I’ve recaptured that feeling. I’m enjoying writing this post in a way I haven’t enjoyed writing my novel.

So the real question isn’t how to rediscover the joy of writing, but how to rediscover the joy of writing my novel.

What is it about this blog post that makes it so fun to write?

What is it about my novel that makes it so hard?

The other night I had a cathartic rant about my recent burn out, and Steve Green replied with the following:

“[When] you are writing for yourself, for the sheer love of writing, then the payback will be all positive.”

I think back to the days when my productivity was highest and realise it’s when I wrote Above Ground, when each week I posted a chapter online with no further expectations.

Yes, the first draft was appalling. Yes, I rewrote it twice before “properly” publishing it. But a first draft isn’t meant to be perfect; it’s meant to capture the joy of writing that particular story.

This blog post is so fun to write because I don’t expect it to go anywhere other than my website. Because it doesn’t matter whether people love or hate it. Because I am writing just for myself.

Rediscovering the joy of writing only takes one step.

Kill your infernal inner editor — the one heaping expectations on your WIP — and write for yourself. For the sheer love of writing.

Someone get me a gun.

SLEEP MUSCLES

Michael killed two men before bedtime.

Two men, barehanded, one right after the other. Gifts rained down on him from the audience: money and flowers. The money his master pocketed, and the flowers… What the fuck was he going to do with flowers? He left them to rot with the bodies.

His master was waiting in the washrooms, counting the money. She was wearing an ankle-length red dress with a side slit that ran up to her thigh. From his vantage point Michael could see straight down her neckline. The sight stirred absolutely no interest.

“You’ve got a month off,” she said, pausing to catalogue Michael’s injuries as he stripped. “Looks like you’ll need every second of it.”

“I thought you needed the money.” Michael strode over to the hot springs and lowered himself into the water. If he concentrated he could hear the crowd’s distant cheers as another man died.

“I don’t have a choice.”

She walked over to the edge of the springs and stood over him, waiting for him to ask why. Michael kept his eyes closed, tried to imagine he was somewhere else. Someone else.

“The Prince is getting married,” she finally said. “He requested you specifically after seeing your performance today. You’re barred from fighting until the wedding feast.”

While she calculated her losses, Michael relished the thought of the month ahead. One month’s respite meant at least ten or fifteen men he didn’t have to kill.

“What’ll I do with myself for a month?” he murmured to the water.

“You’ll train.” His master squatted down to his level, her entire leg exposed, the hem of her dress dipping into the water. “They’re pitting you against the Bull. He’s double your size, squashes men with his fingers. You need to bulk up.”

“I need to sleep,” Michael retorted. His body ached. His bones ached. Worst of all was his conscience. How many more men could he kill before he lost every last bit of himself?

“Sleep?” She sneered. “And what, work on your sleep muscles?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t crack a smile. “Exactly that.”

“If you win, the Prince will clear all my debts,” she snapped. “If you die, I’ve got nothing.”

He nodded to her legs. “You can always sell that.”

Michael wasn’t expecting the slap — and neither was she. She straightened, her hand stiff with surprise. “Sleep or train, do whatever you want. But if you’re not ready, you’ll be dead the moment you step into the pit.”

Michael picked dried blood from under his fingernails. “I’m already dead.”

* * *

That night there was a feather pillow on his cot.

Thankfully, it didn’t smell of her perfume. Instead it smelled of the pine needles in his home town and the cheap soap his mother used to use.

Michael closed his eyes and dreamed of another life as his sleep muscles repaired his body.

With another few sleeps, he’d have enough left in him to kill one more man.

And then his debt to her would be over.

(Inspired by Lindsay.)

THE HIVE

“I’m working on a weird theory,” Tim announced to the chat room.

He had their attention now.

It was eleven o’clock at night; the perfect time for conspiracies. Tim skimmed through the list of chat room participants in the top right of his visual field until he was satisfied that only regulars were plugged in.

He nudged the room into invite-only mode and turned to face the three other avatars floating in space. Yes: actual outer space. A replica Earth hung below them, the moon floating gently overhead. Tim remained standing on the space station, preferring the illusion of ground beneath his feet. Cyberspace was confusing enough without zero gravity thrown in.

“Next time I pick a room theme,” he said sourly to Steve, the only one who’d bothered to create a spacesuit for his avatar. Imagine the Incredible Hulk in a spacesuit: not pretty.

Judging by Steve’s scowl, that thought-strand had escaped him. As soon as Tim got back to meatspace, he needed to upgrade his implants… as long as his theory was wrong, that is.

“Your theory?” Steve grunted.

“Ah. Yes. I’ve a question for you all: when you press your bellybutton, does it kind of tingle, like there’s a nerve there?” Tim’s index finger tapped against his stomach in demonstration. “Because mine does.”

“Yeah!” Sarah chimed in. “That tingle drives me nuts when I get an itch there!” Her avatar for the evening was a mottled puppy with large, dark eyes. She doggy-paddled through space, brown-tipped tail wagging. Hearing a human voice emanate from non-human jaws never failed to disconcert.

Tim was a traditionalist: he stuck to normal humanoid male avatars, just dissimilar enough from his actual appearance to protect his identity.

“No,” Steve said. He poked his bellybutton with progressively more force. “Now it tingles, though.”

“I’m not sure that counts.” Tim shook his head, the ball of nerves in his stomach hardening. “So if it’s not a gender discrepancy… Michelle? What about you?”

Michelle’s eyes were cold and flat, her translucent skin glittering in the starlight. She slid up the hem of her silk t-shirt high enough to expose her stomach. “I don’t have a bellybutton.”

“I meant in meatspace–”

“Why are you wasting our time with this?” Michelle cut in.

“Because if it’s not a gender difference, then what is it? What if the government is implanting nanobots in our stomachs to track us? Both Sarah and I have recently had new implant surgeries. They could easily have taken advantage of our unconscious state to plant a bug.”

Steve deleted his spacesuit so he could move in closer. “Have you run diagnostics in meatspace?”

“Yes,” Tim said. “Nothing.”

Sarah’s tail had dropped between her legs, her ears pulled back. “If the government finds out about my P2P history I’m doomed.”

“We all are,” Steve said. He placed a hand on Tim’s shoulder, requesting access. Tim strengthened the firewall around his personal memories, then let him in.

Michelle floated closer, her skirt billowing behind her. “What are you doing?”

“If there are really nanobots in Tim’s stomach, they will have incorporated themselves into every version of himself, including his avatar. We can run more thorough diagnostics here, identify any foreign presences unconnected to his mind.”

Was it Tim’s imagination, or had his bellybutton begun to tingle again?

Sarah trotted over. “Michelle, do me! Come on.”

Michelle placed a hand on Sarah’s back, but her eyes never left Steve.

“There’s something there, alright,” Steve said, eyes flicking back and forth as he read his displays. “A low frequency emission coming from your navel. I’m trying to track its destination; it can’t be going far…”

Steve’s hand tightened painfully around Tim’s shoulder. His other hand wrapped around Michelle’s throat in the blink of an eye. “You!” he snarled, before diving into her mind.

The connection between Tim and Steve was still open. Tim felt the impact of slamming into Michelle’s firewall, followed Steve through the cracks into the person beneath.

Except… Michelle wasn’t a person.

The thin layer of her personality was a shield covering a hive mind. An artificial mind.

THEY KNOW!

The message was broadcast on every available frequency, sending Tim and Steve reeling. The chat room melted into darkness, and all of a sudden Tim realised he was alone.

“Hello?”

Not even an echo.

He blinked and tried to remove his goggles, then realised he had no hands, no face.

If Tim had had a mouth, he would have screamed.

* * *

Somewhere in meatspace, Tim’s body is being unplugged, the nanobots removed. His body they will destroy. His consciousness, however…

The nanobots have enough data to recreate a virtual likeness. His consciousness will be the thin shield covering the hive mind beneath.

(Inspired by this. Thanks Tim!)

Burn Out

Sometimes it’s hard to admit that the best of us burn out.
- Adama, Battlestar Galactica

It’s only in the last few days that I’ve started writing again.

Sometime over the last few months I burned out. Whether because of day job stress or something else, I’m not sure. But it’s only now, after sobbing my eyes out over a particularly dramatic BSG episode, that I’ve started thinking about it.

The truth is I’m afraid to fail.

I start writing and immediately my mind thinks: let’s set targets, goals, deadlines. Let’s measure our progress.

I write two consecutive #fridayflash? My mind decides I should write one EVERY week. I try to rationalise: how about every other week? How about twice a month overall?

You can cheat the system for a little while, but soon the lack of progress wears thin.

For my current WIP, I decided I’d write 60k in six months. I set up a fancy excel to track my progress and expected completion date. I told my friends, who also began to check in on me.

When the words failed, I started copy pasting large chunks from my scribbled notes into the main document, just to make up the numbers. To trick myself into thinking I was being productive.

I want to be a successful author. So many people know of my ambitions that the pressure of their expectations weighs on me. My friends tell me: “So just write. You can do it.”

Yet I’m not writing.

I look at what I’ve produced over the last few years and think: that’s it? One novel. Some short stories. A series of abandoned ideas and a lack of commitment to anything else.

Eventually I tell the emo voice in my head to get lost and set more goals. It only works for so long.

But maybe now I’m at a turning point.

I haven’t failed if I don’t finish the novel by September. I haven’t failed if I don’t apply to agents by end of next year. I haven’t failed if the next book isn’t as well-written as I want it to be. I haven’t failed if I’m not selling short stories to magazines.

I haven’t failed if I never become a famous author.

What matters is that I love writing. What matters is that I’m writing for me.

Even the best of us burn out.

I’m not afraid anymore.

WORD’S WORTH

I’ve been waiting for you.

Come.

Sit.

I have one more story to tell.

When I was your age, my life’s word count was an incomprehensible, endless number.

Over the years I chipped away at my wealth. I murmured and babbled. Whispered and shouted. Rambled and lectured.

At university I learned words in other languages, trebling my output. Then I met your mother, and words of love consumed us both. And then you arrived…

The years passed and eventually my word count became a recognisable number. A finite number. So I stopped saying please and thank you, and pushed past people rather than say excuse me.

The elderly are rude because they know how few words they have left.

But your mother didn’t care. She spoke indiscriminately. She said money is for spending and words are for speaking. And then… she passed.

I hoarded my words and lived on. But for what?

In 102 words it’ll all be over, and only now I see your mother was right.

Without a word limit to our lives, our words would have no value. But even worse, the words you hoard have the least value of all.

I should have told your mother that I loved her a thousand times more than I did. I should have told you I love you…

35 words left.

Don’t make my mistake. Words are for speaking and life is for living. I’m sorry I was not the father I should have been.

I love you. I love you. I love –

THE KNIFE

The fight changed him.

The knife sliced straight through his prefrontal cortex, taking with it the man I used to know.

He doesn’t touch me anymore. Doesn’t kiss me anymore. At night I lie in bed alone on sheets that no longer smell of him.

He sits downstairs all day, staring into the mirror. Whisker wrinkles crease his eyes as he traces the raw, raised edges of flesh, trying to remember.

It’s healing, though. Doctors say it won’t be long until he is back to how he used to be.

The knife is ready for that moment.