5k back to couch

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Well I did my best and got up to doing the full 30 minutes on the NHS Couch to 5k programme, though I wasn’t up to the full distance. And then…

  • I got a job with an hour long commute each way
  • Winter happened

So I haven’t run for over a month now and, having got out of the habit, it’s going to be hard to get back into it when it’s either dark or raining when I get home. The new plan is to hibernate for the winter and get back into it for spring.

Semicolons: A rant with pictures

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I have a love/hate relationship with the semicolon. To be specific, the semicolon with which I am in this relationship I not the semicolon that acts as a boss-comma.  The boss-comma semicolon performs admirably the function of making clear lists of phrases that embrace internal commas. I’m fine with this usage. This semicolon is invisible to me – as all good uses of punctuation should be.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

No. My turbulent relationship is with the semicolon used to join clauses. Used correctly, it joins independent clauses. Used often to join up any damned fragments the writer wants to mash together.

I’ve recently joined a critique group. This week the pieces submitted were so this with semicolons, I thought I was reading a Java class.

Side note: Has anyone ever tried writing a narrative within the  strictures of a programming language? Would it be fascinating or dull to read?

Obtrusive and irritating are the nicest things I can find to say about the parade of semicolons in these pieces. The nib of my red pen was worn to a nub. My attitude to those who use semicolons can be summed up in the following diagram:

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  • Use too many semicolons – you look pretentious
  • Use them incorrectly – you look like an idiot
  • Use semicolons incorrectly all over your writing – you look like a pretentious idiot

While the boundaries of correct usage are solid, the boundaries of what constitutes too many semicolons are blurry. It depends entirely on how good a writer you are and whether these usages are not only correct, but appropriate.

That’s the hate out of the way. As for the love… When I see a writer use a semicolon for its intended purpose, in a sentence that it perfectly fits and enhances, it makes me happy. It gives me a level of craft to aspire to (because I’m definitely not yet in the class of confident and stylish semicolon users).

Until then, this is the advice I follow and I urge folks to do the same:

Use them correctly; use them sparingly; use them elegantly.

Writing at the speed of story

I’ve noticed that my writings fall into one of two buckets. The labels for these buckets haven’t crystallised for me yet. Not “short and long”, not “character-driven and plot-driven”, not “good and bad” – these do have some truth in them. Maybe “fast and slow”, though those words don’t describe how I write them – a “slow” piece might flow out much more freely than a “fast” piece that had to be dragged out by its ankles a word at a time. These descriptions apply more to my mental attitude about a piece.

Often I find that when writing a strongly plotted novel or short story, the plot rushes me through. These are my “fast” stories. I see the dots and I’m in a hurry to join them. My fingers furiously forge the chain of causality that is plot. I hit each scene like a pinball and bounce off in search of the next. I don’t have a metaphor for the kind of writer that I want to be, but I can tell you it isn’t “a pinball”.

Of the stories I’ve had published by others, 2/3 were not that plot driven. Yes, there was forward motion carrying the tale through the scenes, but it was not the focus of the story. In those pieces, my focus was inside each scene and on making them evocative and forceful. These are my “slow” stories. They are almost always short and I can see why: when the destination is close, I can take the journey more slowly.

My problem is a problem of tense. Writing the “fast” stories, I concentrate on “What is going to happen next?”; writing the slow, “Where am I now?”. I believe I get better writing out of myself when I hold the second question in mind.

I’m finally beginning to edit a novel that’s been languishing in first draft purgatory for over a year. The edit is hard, because this is a book from the “fast” bucket. I’m not present in the scenes. I’m in the next scene, waiting for my words to find a way to get there. They catch up; I skip on. Much of my description feels perfunctory or for pacing or to provide a floor plan for my characters to move around in without tripping over any continuity mistakes.

I’m taking my despair as a good sign – it lets me know I’ve learned things and grown as a writer over the last year or so.

There’s more to learn yet.

I must learn to linger. I must learn to stay inside a scene and run my fingers through it, taste the air, spy out the bright details.

In this way, I can create more stories to be proud of.

 

 

Performance Art vs Garret Art

I had the opportunity last month to head up to the Edinburgh Fringe and see a friend of mine act and dance in a show (that she had also choreographed). Fringe is something I’ve been meaning to do for years and this extra incentive finally got me there – that and an 8 hour train journey broken in Leeds. After I got over my mind being blown by this awesome show and my friend’s incandescent talent, I started thinking about the difference between introverted creativity and extroverted creativity.

What do I mean by those terms?

I think of introverted creativity as what I do. I sit, generally alone, in my own space and write, draw or sew. When I have something ‘finished’ – by which I mean, something that can survive being abandoned – I push it out into the world as a thing that is almost separate from me. Then I step back into the shadows. If an audience comes to interact with my creation, it is asynchronous. If they choose to feedback to me, that feedback is often filtered through the process required to commit thoughts to keyboard.

Extroverted creativity, then, is performance. The creator and the creation entwined. The creative is out there creating in front of the audience’s eyes. Even under the weight of all the prior preparation and planning and practice, each performance creates anew. There’s always the potential for new discoveries and new interpretations. No performance is ever the definitive performance. The piece does not have to be abandoned. There are no shadows for the performer. The spotlight of the audience’s attention shines on them. The feedback is immediate. It flows across the faces of the audience. It thrums in the energy that is shared between performer and audience. The connection is human, not textual.

This is what I envy the performance artist: that connection. I create, but I can’t stand close to the reader, peering over the top of their screen, and watch fear, sadness, surprise and joy move their face. I stay in my garret.

Halfway to 5k

Thought I’d post a quick update on my health kick. I’m just over halfway through the NHS Couch to 5k podcast. I’ve finished week 5 of 9 (and, yes, I know it’s over 5 weeks since I posted that I was starting the programme, but I’m happy with speed of progress).

The most recent step in the programme was the hardest. The last run of week 5 is a step up from intervals to a single continuous run. The difficulty in that step isn’t physical, it’s mental. Physically, the step isn’t that large: from two 8 minute intervals with a walking rest between to a single 20 minute run. In reality it’s only an extra 4 minutes of run time.

In my mind it was a quantum leap. I’ve been surviving my runs by living from breath to breath in anticipation of my next resting interval. “Impossible,” my mind was shouting. “8 minutes to 20! That’s more than double. What happened to that fabulous, faux-Fibonacci progression that the interval times seemed to be following?” All this shouting cowed me. I put off starting this run as long as I could, but in the end I had to try it, and risk failing myself, or fail myself in a different way.

I gritted my teeth. I ratchetted my trainers tight. I got into it.

After 5 minutes my mind was shouting again: “You’ve got to be kidding me!” When it’s your own mind saying things like that to you, the true refrain is “I’m kidding myself.” I can never be the sort of person who runs. I’m 30; it’s too late; even when I was 13 I couldn’t run any farther than the bus stop at the end of the road; I’ve no chance now. Obvious horseshit.

I sweated through the minutes and despite counting down the last few second in a trance of desperation, I found that once I knew I’d made it I had enough left in me to carry on a little longer. And I did.

The real victory for me wasn’t the time or distance covered – I know that to seasoned runners/fitter individuals 20 minutes isn’t such an achievement. My victory was that I didn’t let myself give up or slack off.

I did it.

From that foundation, I know I can do the rest. I can get to 5k.

Unfit to unfat

My self-improvement drive continues. In addition to improving my mind through some Coursera courses, I’m attempting to improve my health.

I’ve always felt an odd disconnect from my body, like it’s just a thing that carries my consciousness from place to place and provides an API to the world. It’s a strange way to feel and I’m trying to change it. My body is as much me as my mind is, but at 30 I’m only just getting to know it and its capabilities again after almost a decade of letting things slide, of getting sluggish and complacent.

Starting from scratch is daunting. I’ve found a couple of useful tools on the NHS website to get me going.

In addition, Wimbledon has inspired me to try tennis lessons. I think I need something more that fitness for fitness’s sake to aim for, something social, something competitive, something mentally challenging too.

It’s week one. Wish me luck.

 

Coursera

You learn something new every day.

This is a favourite adage of mine. I often say it in response to some new, fascinating piece of knowledge or experience that has come my way. There’s so much in this world to learn and do and I believe in making the most of that.

Enter Coursera, to help me in my quest. Coursera offers a wide range of massive open online courses (MOOCs) from universities around the globe. At the moment I’m midway through two courses with Coursera: “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The human mind, our modern world” and “Introduction to Art: Concepts and Techniques”.

Information is shared through text, videos and forum discussions. Assignments are collected through online forms and marked by fellow participants in the class. This latter has its upsides and its downsides. Peer assessment allows these courses to scale – they can be offered, free of charge, to a huge number of people at once. However, the criticism is not always constructive or even present – I’ve found that my peers in the Art course tend to mark rather generously and criticise with reluctance.

These courses can be whatever you want them to be: as participatory as you’d like, depending on how much you use the forums; as challenging as you’d like, depending on how much you give to the assignments.

What I find most challenging is making time for the learning activities of two courses in addition to a full-time job, a life and writing fiction. But it’s very worth it.

Check Coursera out. There are courses on every subject in many languages. There’s always more to learn.

Food for ears

I’ve been away from the blog for a while. Heck, I’ve been away from writing for a while. The day job kicked into a different gear and train commutes started eating up my life.

It was important to me not to let those train commutes turn into lost time. There often isn’t space for creative output. Instead I use the time to consume stimulating or inspiring inputs: novel, podcasts – especially podcasts.

There are some awesome podcasts out there. Here are some of the ones that liven my commute and fill me with ideas.

Radiolab: I can’t believe I only discovered this show earlier this year. I’ve been working my way through their back catalogue. Radiolab is a perfect blend of science and philosophy, sociology and artistry. As well as having awesome content, the show is expertly crafted audio and a joy to listen to.

Stuff You Missed In History Class: Half hour snippets about interesting and unexplored nooks and crannies of history.

New Yorker Fiction: Literary fiction from the New Yorker’s back catalogue, selected and read by another of their authors. These stories are diverse, well-written and interesting, but the best part of the podcast is the second half when the host and the selecting author discuss the story.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Literary adventure fiction. Some beautiful fantasy stories.

The Moth: True stories told live without notes, but often with plenty of humour.

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips: If you are a writer or interested in writing, you’re already listening to this. So I won’t bother describing how useful, well researched and clear this podcast is.

The Iron Garden, Steampunk Magazine #9

Hello all. Just a quick blog post to let you know: I’ve been published!

The Iron Garden, a short story of mine, has been featured in Steampunk Magazine #9. That alone is exciting. More exciting is that it has been illustrated – beautifully. Admiration and appreciation to Sergei Tuterov for his art.

Steampunk Magazine is available free from their website in PDF format. They work on a donation model to keep producing awesome content, so please do show them some love in £££ form.