Thursday, 30 October 2008

a period in life with no goals is an illusion (for me at least)

As said elsewhere and before, lots of milestones the last couple of weeks/month. September tenth made it a year since I graduated, and October tenth a year ago was my first day physically in front of a classroom, no funny business. November 3rd was the day on which some indefensible behaviour got me unto the track of writing a doctoral thesis. It makes me feel like I should take a moment to let this all sink in, because I really haven’t had anything like that for a while now.

Did I? Will I? (Right, not bloody likely.)

Emotionally, psychologically, academically, I’ve grown more this past year than I think I did while still in university, which is very possibly just proof that the student world is a safe one, and a student’s view narrow. Shame on me.

So I’m approaching the one-year-anniversary of my attempt at a doctoral thesis and have admittedly very little to show for it. (An introduction and a first chapter.)

With November and National Novel Writing Month approaching, I got an October word challenge writing for the thesis. I said yes, because that’s how my brain approaches challenges. The goal for this month was officially to finish a chapter for the thesis (I wasn’t going to reveal the word count that I was actually aiming for for fear of sounding naïve, but I’ll risk it and admit I’m 3000 words short of my 25000 word goal). I probably won’t make that 25K before the month ends, but I do have a chapter. I’m not completely happy with it, and November is going to be NaNoReMo for me, besides just NaNoWriMo, but it’s nice to get some work done. The introduction had value because it helped me figure out what I was writing about and where my boundaries were. The chapter has value because it gives me something to show for my work, which is a psychological necessity.

Because 25000 words on an academic subject is insane if you have to do it besides a fulltime day job, next target is a more careful one: chapter 2 by mid January (I’m not saying the end of December, but I’m aiming for it).

At which point I’ll admit I’d be really annoyed with me if I were my student.

Am I enjoying myself? Weirdly enough, I am.
Am I going to crash? I’ve been able to avoid it since I got tackled by a cold last month, but knock on wood.

When you think of me, this November, think of me reading. You’re not going to be too far off. (I have the new KJ Parker waiting. :P) If you see me scribbling fiction, ignore it. I'm not aiming for 50K. At all.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Rapidly approaching deadlines are good for getting to goals.

Putting some pictures up from the company trip yesterday made me get to developing some things for the website that I hadn't gotten to previously. (That's priorities and lack of time mostly, as ever. Do notice I didn't do it during the holiday either. :P) Anyway, the photography part of the site is more or less up (mostly less), and I suppose I'll just put a link for the teaching stuff when I'm sure about the link on Monday and sort out the About page tomorrow.

After that I'll probably go for a redesign again, but oh well.

Did the more necessary things, like vacuuming the inside of my parents' computer and putting in a working DVD-writer. I'm backing their stuff up and doing a clean reinstall over the weekend, because the damned thing is getting slower by the hour. I'll probably put some additional memory in there as well and see how that works. (More memory and clean reinstal should equal super-speed.)

Tonight is dedicated to getting that damned thesis introduction into shape though. If I can't pour all the stuff dancing around out of my brain into a word document I'll not be responsible for the consequences.

Also, need sleep.

Why this sudden urge to get things sorted? Certainly teaching starting this week has nothing to do with it?

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Work, in its many shapes and forms.

I talked about reaching the end of the inspirational curve in my last post, I believe, not quite realising how true that prediction would turn out to be. My word counts over May and June have been atrocious (or they feel like they have been), and only July seems to be making up for that slightly. As a student, my writing tended to take precedence over my schoolwork (especially phonetics suffered grievously), and I've always been the first to admit my priorities were very wrong back then.

These days I've got even more priorities (or goals, anyway), so even more of a chance of side-stepping them, and, in effect, responsibilities. Except I don't.

Life may not start after graduation, but it changes, God, it changes. And even if I try to tell my students that studying and doing homework is not that different from work and doing the assignments your boss gives you, I can't pretend it isn't different for me now. I can't show up in front of a class unprepared. (Somehow it's easier to show up prepared and do other things though, maybe because the back-up plan is still in place.) As a student, failure just results in not passing a certain course or class. After graduation, failure has as a possible consequence that you get fired. So first and foremost (and this is probably insecurity as well), I make sure my classes are prepared. The only reason for this to maybe suffer a teeny-tiny bit is when I have a deadline coming up for my doctoral thesis, which apparently ranks higher in my brain of priorities. Fiction-writing, as stated before, suffers.

But today is the first day of my holiday, and between packing and wrapping things up (we’re moving offices after the holiday), last week wasn't as busy as the weeks before (which suddenly turned into unexpected hell), which gave the brain a chance to relax. I'll wrap up some last work-related things this weekend, put all my work-stuff I took home in a bag, and leave it in the corner of the library. I don't think I've ever experienced a holiday in which I could physically, psychologically, put a goal/priority away in a corner. It feels wonderful.

As a result, that inspirational curve? I'm in the steep part of it that goes up. :D

I think I’ve figured out the main (methodological) topics of my thesis, and I have high hopes of having a finished introduction and approach by the end of this month, if not the next, with a chapter 1 that’s more finished than in progress by September. And that’s taking into account my slacking abilities, not even a best-case-scenario.

Fiction-wise, big steps. I’ve got the basic plot for part one pretty much figured out and written, which leaves filling the gaps before I dare and try and expand any subplot. I did a run-through of the entire text for part 1 (108.000 words, thankyouverymuch) last week and think that even if much of it still needs work, there’s two parts in there that are really, really good. Small steps should get me a good way towards a finished first draft. Going to Cambridge is going to really help towards getting part two fleshed out. (Though seriously, it’s research for sequels.)

Yeah, I know, don’t tell me. Too much sleep is bad for me. :P

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Reading begets writing, and vice versa.

The proliferation of fanfiction of course being the most solid proof of that.

I've got periods of writing and periods of reading, but until about last week I think on both the reading and writing fronts I've been in hibernation.

But work has slowed down due to the approaching resit and exam weeks; more to do for the students, less to do for the lecturers. So feeling a bit less stressed, I started Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. At the same time, curiously enough, my fiction writing picked up again too. The almost 8000 words last week (it's more already this week) are a lot better compared to the miserable counts I've had the previous weeks. Not fanfiction, not even anything related genre-wise, but just enough pleasant reading to inspire pleasant writing.

Linda made me a present of some Diana Wynne Jones books (four Chrestomanci novels) for my birthday, and once I started reading the first last Monday I've proceeded to devour them whole. (I'm saving one for the backlash that I predict is a week or so in the waiting.) I haven't been inspired enough by them to actually write about them (last novel that nearly got me there was The Historian), but I've been racing through them at an alarming speed, and my word count with it. Christopher Chant is just one of those characters that's too easy to fall in love with. And if you're in love, even if it's with fictional characters, everything goes easier. Your brain goes wild for a while, and you read and write and forget to sleep, and at some point the brain slows down, and it's time to concentrate on other things for a while. (Like photographing falconry demonstrations. Or simply SLEEP.)

But reading begets writing, and writing begets reading.
And that works on more levels than just the most obvious one. It's to do with what Dickens wanted us to think about when he wrote that "Everything in our lives, whether of good or evil, affects us most by contrast." (The Old Curiosity Shop) That quote has called out to me ever since I read it for the first time, because it strikes me as so very true. Contrast, yes, but contrast emphasizes differences, and there can only be differences (and hence, contrast), if there is a common factor for comparison.

As a budding writer, you emulate the authors you read and enjoy. Plotwise, character-wise, genre-wise. It's the reason why first-time books tend not to work when you're only just beginning. (Editing and time has to save you from mediocrity and cliché.) It's the reason why too much science-fiction sounds like Asimov and too much fantasy sounds like Tolkien. (The only genre that accepts this and has incorporated it into its very identity, incidentally, is detective fiction.) It's a way too start.

When you start thinking about your own writing, and developing and keeping your own style, and you start realising that there are simply some things you may want to avoid, like flat female characters, male heroes who have to find items (rings, swords, anyone?) that will surely destroy/save the world, and having a fantasy story that is more about developing your own made-up language than telling a story, your writing will improve. Most importantly, you'll notice the difference. You emulate what you like, but twist it until it becomes your own. You avoid what you dislike, or twist it so it becomes your own (though not necessarily more likeable).

At that point, everything you start to read will influence you, whether you want it or not. If I ever get published, I'll feel forced to thank every author I've ever read, because one way or another, they were influential in inspiring me. Some because I wanted to be like them, some because they made me realise what to avoid. Contrast again. There are no good or bad experiences, there are just experiences, and you'll learn from them. There are no good and bad writers, just writers. Some you will love, and some you will hate, and usually you'll be able to find people who can give you excellent arguments for thinking exactly the opposite, which is what makes it even more fun.

I love KJ Parker, first and foremost because she's writing against the grain as a woman focussing on more technical subjects in writing. I'd like to write like her, because she's a wizard (witch?) with plot and general evilness. Still, every couple of chapters I want to hit her for missing out on things that could very well have made a novel even better. I'm starting to wonder if Diana Wynne Jones and JK Rowling aren't two sides of the same coin. DWJ sketches worlds that go beyond anyone's imagination, but sometimes her characters seem less rounded than I'd like them to be. JKR began taking characterisation a step too far when she discovered what caps lock abuse is.

My suspicion is that there's a middle road between plot and characterisation that very few authors manage to find. That doesn't mean that that's actually really true, but that that's just what I look for in a novel or a story. Wynne Jones and Rowling have proven that their formulas are successful even though many readers will point out flaws, and I suspect Parker may get there in the years to come. But the books are theirs, they're the ones responsible, and they're the ones who decide what they write about. We can complain, but that doesn't change anything.

There's no such thing as the perfect story, and if there is, it'd probably be dead boring. But what is true is that you write what you want to read. If you can find an audience that's like you, that wants to read what you want to read, and what you're writing, you've got it made. (Well, hypothetically.) Any author writes the sum of his or her influences; social, cultural, personal. It's a bit of yourself transferring to the (digital) paper, and that's what makes it fun, and that's why so many people, most of them without any ambitions to ever publish anything, write. They started reading, because that's how you start, and then started writing, and discovered the interaction between the two.

Personally, currently, it looks like I'm reaching the downwards part of the inspirational curve right now, which is good, because it means I don't have to feel guilty or sorry about focussing on the dissertation from next week onwards again. (How many words can I write in the next three weeks, I'm wondering?) But it's nice to remember how easy it is to get into writing again. Everyone has books that they return to for comfort, that are so pleasant and so familiar that they're like that hot bath that you can sink into after a terrible day (week, month) at work. And everyone has at least one story in them, however silly, sentimental, cliché, or frightening, that has the same effect as the hot bath and the favourite book in the writing it down. Enjoy it if you find it. But don't forget to enjoy someone else's, too.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Not on writing, but on confidence.

With there being very little time between the job, dissertation research, and keeping up with life in general, my reading of normal books (as opposed to, say, research or work books) has been reduced to a minimum that wasn’t even this bad when I was still at university studying English literature. (To say nothing of writing.)

I made an effort this last week, after I sent in my unofficial dissertation proposal, to finish some books I have lying around half-read. I started Lauren Bacall’s By Myself and Then Some because it was for sale at the book fair, and I thought it would be fun to read considering the Bogie-factor. I loved it, I think. Not absolutely and all-overpoweringly, but I’d recommend it.

I was particularly struck by this, somewhere on the final pages:

I guess a true sense of self-confidence is not in the cards for me. At least in certain special situations. It’s a different kind of nervousness – not like opening night in the theatre. I think it’s reverting subconsciously to my first dreams of becoming an actress – of being so star-struck. After watching for so many years Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Vivien Leigh, Gielgud, Guinness and more – to find myself meeting them – being accepted by them as one of them, no less – was quite unbelievable to me. And upon working with any of them – at the beginning I became eight years old.
(page 461 in my Headline paperback)

I think I get where she’s coming from. I tend to get nervous around people I admire, as if somehow I could let it slip I’m actually not the person who they think I am, or I can’t do what they believe I can. It’s absolute nonsense, most of the time anyway, but the brain conspires against you like that sometimes.

I had that with writing only in the beginning. I didn’t admit to anyone I wrote except close friends and family, as if somehow that could jinx it. That went away, and it’s one of the few things I can be grateful to fanfiction for. It gave me enough confidence in my writing to admit to actually doing it. It’s like that anonymous quote: “Each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing.”

Which hopefully means I’ll stop being an idiot about dissertation meetings at some point.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

A goal, a goal!

As if I really need more goals.

One of the things I loved about public blogging was the fact that you got into contact with other people who (accidentally or not) stumbled unto your journal entry and found something they liked. Human nature and its love for recognising something familiar, probably.

One of the things I loved talking about was writing. Looking back on that, it was more talking about how I felt about writing rather than writing itself. I tell my students now that they have to write and think about how to approach the introduction, the body, and the conclusion of any text they write, but meanwhile I never quite did that myself. I just wrote, and the fact that I somehow got away with it possibly says something about my natural writing capabilities.
Different for literature essays than for business letters, of course.

What it doesn't say, of course, but what is implied, is that I could have done so much better had I actually listened to my teachers and thought about structure. I talked about hindsight in my previous entry, I believe. It explains why I always did so well comparing poetry though: I never much liked it and reverted to the structure and close-reading of the text, which forces structure by its very nature.

The realisation, I think, is that I was approaching essay writing the same way I approach fiction writing. And since I'm one of those people who work a lot of mystery into their fiction, that means I didn't think about thesis statements, because that would give away my topic right at the beginning.

So maybe I want to talk about writing again. The fiction writing in my life currently just consists of snippets. I want to get back to my 75% finished novel, but I'm afraid that if I do that, I'll get lost and let go of writing a dissertation all-together until I get published. Dreamer.
I'm getting the hang of structure. It's killing me, but I'm getting there. I've analysed introductions, stolen the structure and made it into a research proposal that only covers about half of my idea for a dissertation properly. (Must really get self to stop having tunnelvision.) I think I can have a reasonable amount of pride over the fact that I tamed structure though. One step at a time.

I refuse structure for this though.
There shall be no attempt at structure in this blog.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

First Entry

And so we try again.

I've caught myself from having gone to a rather introspective kind of journalling/blogging to a more informative kind, which probably has to do with the fact that I'm too busy to have any real thoughts beyond the kind that have to do with work. It's bad when researching for a possible PhD becomes one of the few remaining escape routes in your life.

So I've pretty much stopped writing, I've admittedly begun photographing again, but other than that, life is currently a marathon consisting of reaching the end of the week so I can sleep. (Right, that's probably my cold talking.) I'm not saying I'm not learning a lot, and having enormous amounts of fun, but it's going too fast.

Meanwhile, I've been forced to rethink my writing, in particular the academic kind, but as a result also the normal kind. For most of my life up to now, I've just written, and not thought much about beginnings, endings, and the way to go about it. That I got away with it, to the point of getting my MA, says something about my writing skills, but the post-graduation time has made me realise a lot of things, not in the least that there's a more theoretical side to writing as well. And that, if I want to attempt this PhD, I'll definitely have to reconsider how I've written before.

Is it weird that you can only appreciate your education after you've actually finished it? And that you wished you would have realised that more consciously before it was actually over?