Archive for March, 2011

Nearly NaPoWriMo!

Monday, March 21st, 2011

It's nearly National Poetry Writing Month again and I will once again be participating in the poem-a-day extravaganza of verse.

This year I'm hoping I will get some time to do some more animated rhymes as well as (hopefully) bleeding the theme of poetry over onto Alien of the Day. (Aliens write poetry right??)

Creativity? Privacy please.

Monday, March 21st, 2011

My Masters course is driving me nuts again.

What I'm finding hard to do are the stages along the way to producing finished work. The first step is usually an outline, then a treatment, then a rough draft, followed by a full draft. After each of these steps there is a tutorial. During the tutorial they take your idea - which is only part-formed at this stage - and tell you that you can't do this bit, that your character would never do that and why don't you do this instead. At which point, it's rewrite time, where the whole process is repeated with their suggestions incorporated.

(I find this very strange.  And, to be frank, unrepresentative of writing as a profession.  Editors in my experience for example do not usually make suggestions of this kind. They may critique or say something doesn't work.  But usually they don't tell you how to fix it. That's the writer's job.)

I don't like people accessing my creative process, especially so early on

Putting that aspect aside though, personally I don't like people accessing my creative process, especially so early on. I don't like exposing ideas that are part-formed to other people's input. I prefer to work on my own, at my own pace and only when I'm happy, will I share what I've done. At that point, I'm happy to take my lumps, please critique away!

None of the writers I know would put their ideas out to tender before they are fully formed. Yes I know ideas can't be copyrighted and they can't really be stolen, but there ARE lawyers and there ARE courts and if you listen to someone else's suggestion then they are contributing to your work and they are potentially entitled to get a share of any money earned from it. Many writers won't share their ideas - let alone sharing them early on - for just this reason.

Many writers also won't read other people's work

Many writers also won't read other people's work for fear of just this kind of come-back later on. There are potential legal ramifications. Sure we are all influenced by other texts in one form or another all the time. Some of the best work, especially in film, relies upon intertextuality. Being influenced by ideas from published and produced works is quite normal. The works form part of the culture and time that we are sharing.  But what if texts haven't been published or produced? How can they be considered part of the same shared cultural pool?  This, I feel, is a morally different thing - especially if that text stands no chance of seeing the light of day as a published or produced work.  This is why many writers just don't read unpublished work.

Why are courses pushing the notion of sharing your work at this very early stage?

So, if writers don't generally take ideas from others - outside of publised works - then why are academics teaching their students that this is how professional writers work? Why are courses pushing the notion of sharing your work at this very early stage? It could be because creative writing, as an academic subject, is a fairly new field, and many would argue it shouldn't even be an academic subject. And of course we've all heard that old argument about whether creative writing can be taught. Now I don't want to get into that argument. (Personally I think creative writing courses do a lot of valuable work - not just in helping fledgling professional writers, but also in encouraging creative writing as an interest and as form of therapy.) But creative writing departments at universities up and down the country however are banking on the subject being something that can be taught. They need to be involved in the student's work from an early stage in order to be said to be having any effect. Without it they can't really justify their own subject. Or their jobs.  Even if teaching this way means giving new writers an incorrect impression of how writers work.

Writing is a lonely job!

Another aspect where this practice can be hazardous to a writer's work is when they come to write projects on their own. If a writer is used to having third party suggestions and support during the writing process it's going to be much harder to adapt to the solitary existence of the writer.  It's a lonely job. Even if, like me, you are surrounded by a family of other writers,  facing the blank page is a daily journey that one must essentially make alone. (Seeing the ease with which other people get down to the business of writing each day, can actually make it harder rather than easier to write!)

Keep your own Counsel!

One of the most important lessons I learned in life was to keep my own counsel. Letting ideas out too soon can, not only affect the quality of your work, but it can also affect your ability to pull it off at all. How many of us haven't shared an idea that we were really enthused about only to find that we felt less enthused because we blabbed about it rather than ploughing our creativity into it? It's a hard lesson to learn - keep your own counsel and you retain your ideas and your energy.

So where does this leave me with my own course? Well, I don't know. I only know I don't roll that way. Writing for me will continue to be something I get on with at my own pace and with my own ideas.

For now, I must  accept that it is just an academic exercise.

Awww my first computer …

Friday, March 11th, 2011

The BBC published an article today about the Sinclair ZX81 which really tugged on my heartstrings. I still have my ZX81 (her name is Henrietta) and she still works ... after a fashion.

Henrietta still has the 16k RAM pack which upraded her from 1k to 16. It plugged into the back with rather a dodgy connection so you had to be mega careful to never jog the RAM pack or the ZX81 would crash - losing all your work.  We actually took the RAM pack to bits a few years back to show the kids the huge chips inside. They were remarkable for their time but put one next to an 8GB microSD card and well let's just say it made me feel a bit old fashioned. It's hard for kids to grasp just why a 1 kb chip needed to be at least 250 times the size of an 8gb chip (that has over 8000 times the capacity).

ZX81

The membrane keyboard (that my dad thought wouldn't last very long) still works just fine thirty years later and is also just as frustrating to type on as it ever was.  Just to think I would type in programs that were hundreds of lines long - being careful never to jog the RAM pack - and then painstakingly debug them for hours on end. There was no internal storage or floppy disk - that wouldn't come along until the later models of the ZX Spectrum  - so we had to manage with recording our work on cassette tapes.  This meant plugging in a standard household tape recorder into the microphone socket on the ZX81 and crossing your fingers.  If you were lucky you would start your tape recorder recording, set the ZX81 to save and no one would come in the room, jog the RAM pack or sneeze until your work was safely saved.  Of course there was no way to know if the recording was a success without testing it. And that meant resetting your ZX81 - and risk losing all your work if the tape recording had screwed up.  Faced with that decision I usually made TWO tape recordings of my programs.  Sadly though even two recordings didn't work and I lost a lot of work - and time - that I never bothered to type out again.

Loading a program was as fraught as saving.  Very often a program would fail to load correctly due to a faulty tape, excessive hiss on the recording - or the squawks of my budgie. He seemed so adept at interrupting the whole process that I was convinced he actually understood what was going on.  My programming time quickly became night-time for him as I would cover him up with a curtain just to shut him up.

The favorite programs we would write were games. Simple things that involved moving a dot about. Another was drawing pictures. Very often this involved drawing vectors and peeking and poking, none of which really means very much to me now. I only remember that I did it - and the proud sense of satisfaction that came from it.

The ZX81 was quickly replaced in my life by the Acorn BBC computer which was a way superior experience in so many ways. It plugged into a color VDU monitor for a start (rather than a portable black and white telly like the ZX81 did).  It also had twin floppy drives in an external drive (which was great for copying and sharing files and programs - all ones that we had written of course, and if you believe that you will believe anything).  And with the BBC was an easy bodge to put a zif socket on the outside so before long we were able to write EPROM chips with programs on. When we wanted to wipe them we simply left them in the sun.

And it was always sunny in those days.  Actually thinking back about it the only time I opened the curtains was to wipe a chip...

Transmedia and Me

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

I'm currently writing an essay for my MA course.  The topic I eventually chose was transmedia.  In case you don't know what that is a quick shortcut is to think about the film The Matrix.  I say film but it was actually a franchise.

The story was spread across the first film and its sequels as well as partly being told through the games, and the short films on the Animatrix DVD.  To understand what the Matrix was you needed to delve deeper into the clues and the imagery contained in the film and elsewhere - and to really do that you needed to search the web - and there were loads of clues.  Some people were disappointed in the sequels, but this was in part because there were so many references to the other media avenues that wouldn't have been understood by audience members who were aware only of the films.

The Matrix Poster

Transmedia storytelling is about designing stories that will be told across multiple media.  The audience can experience parts of the story online, in movies, DVDs or YouTube shorts, via social media, within games, as apps on the iPhone and other smart phones, as geo-located alternative reality games, quizzes, telephone calls, bus benches and a host of other ways.     The possibilities are endless...

I think the main reason I like Transmedia so much is because it bridges my two worlds: my old familiar world of social media and crossplatform, and my new and slightly scary world of screenwriting and filmmaking.

The only rather retrograde aspect of this is that ultimately my instinct tells me there is a book in all this …

To be continued...

Those who can, teach in their blogs

Friday, March 4th, 2011

I get asked very often how to set up a blog, what to talk about, and inevitably how to get to the top of Google. As I said in my previous post How do I make my blog work for me? you need to think carefully about what you mean by getting to the top of Google and secondly you need to write.  The next thing I hear is: What should I write about?

The answer I always give is:

Write about what you know

That is often answered with a shuffling of feet or a sudden interest in shoes.

Very often people are brave enough to write a book, make a film or start a band but they're not brave enough to say how they did it.
Why? Because they feel that their experience of doing whateveritis is inadequate. They are scared that detailing the ardous journey they have travelled will reveal that they are not the possessors of innate talent. They are afraid that they don't have enough experience and they don't know as much as the guy who wrote this book, or that film ... yet.

My answer to that is:  GREAT!

If I wanted to read that guy's book I wouldn't be trawling the internet searching for 'experiences of starting a band' or 'beginners how to direct a film' or whatever-it-is.

Inspiring is advertising!


Mostly people want to be inspired. And this is where you are an expert. You know what it's like to put your first animation up on YouTube because you are right there in the middle of it, doing right now or very recently. So by sharing that experience you not only advertise yourself and your project, you inspire someone else AND you may make a friend along the way too. When that person you've inspired writes their blog they'll be referring readers back to yours and singing your praises for having inspired them right when they needed it most at the start of their journey. Wow wouldn't that feel great?

Never be afraid to teach!

A lot of bloggers are worried about this because they fear some experienced, knowledgeable person will come along and call them out on their lack of knowledge. This practically never happens! Sure there will be other sites and books etc that will explain the subject in greater depth than you can. So put in a link to help your reader progress from your page to theirs - this not only helps your reader but it makes you look like you are in the know with all the best sites to go.

You remember how it feels to start out!

From a teaching AND blogging point of view this is invaluable information!

Put yourself back in the shoes of the person starting out at whatever-it-is and remember how you felt reading that in-depth stuff at the start. I bet you probably felt pretty out of your depth when you first started learning! That is great, because very probably the people who wrote the in-depth sites and books and courses about your subject don't even remember how it feels to be starting out. It can even be said that very often teachers have forgotten the most basic skills and theories that underpin their subject. This is often because they learned those things and came to accept them so long ago that they might not even be able to recite the basic principles now. This happens a lot! I speak from experience here both as a teacher and as a learner. Here's why it happens:

There are four stages to learning.

As you read these four stages, remember - if you can - when you were first learning to swim or ride a bike:
Unconscious incompetence - You don't know just how much you don't know about the subject because whatever-it-is is all so new to you.
Conscious incompetence - You are starting to learn, but you are also startling to learn just how much you don't know yet and just how much more you have to learn about whatever-it-is.
Conscious competence - You keep plugging away at it, learning whatever-it-is and you're even starting to do really well, but you have to concentrate really hard to get it right. Very often in this stage you will find yourself dreaming about whatever-it-is at night.
Unconscious competence - You could do whatever-it-is with your eyes shut and one hand tied behind your back! Pretty soon you can't remember how it felt not to be able to do it!

Find me on Google!

That last step is the doozy!

Now of course it's great for you because you've learned a new skill but it's lousy if you want to teach anyone else. Your brain has no need of the experience of learning the skill so it ditches it all and your perspective changes.

So, start blogging when you start learning!

My Tip is to begin documenting your progress from day one. This will not only help you to help other people but it will provide an invaluable record of your journey, giving you a lasting empathy and insight into the world of the beginner. In the long term you will find you can inspire a lot more people.

And remember, inspiring is advertising!

Good luck!

I give up, she exclaimed!

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Last week I began what I can only call a 'fast' on my use of the exclamation point (exclamation mark if you are from the UK).

Today I am officially ending this attempt to not exclaim. Tomorrow I could have said I made it through the seven days (with only a few minor infractions) but in truth I really gave up trying days ago. As easy as it sounds to give up using exclamation points, it was actually very hard to do.

Funnily enough I found that I didn't use many exclamation marks in general writing so the ban didn't pose much of a problem to my work. Luckily, this last week I have mostly been concentrating on writing the theory essay for my MA Screenwriting course so not a lot of exclamations were called for. (If I had been writing for the screen, working on my novel or coding it would have been far more difficult of course, but my MA course has been taking far too much of my time these past few weeks to attempt much else.)

Where I found I needed an exclamation point most was on Twitter and Facebook. This is because, let's face it, an awful lot of what we talk about in these places is bullshit. This "phatic" conversation - consisting of jokes, light hearted teasing, things said tongue-in-cheek, a bit of textual back and forth banter between friends, strangers and colleagues - is just plain hard to do without the much-maligned, but under-appreciated, exclamation point.

I found out that I used an exclamation mark to perform so many different functions. For example, an exclamation mark:

  • softens comments that might be misread.
  • lightens the impact of friendly teasing.
  • 'lifts' the appearance of the mood of the writer
  • adds flavor!
  • adds a textual smile, in the absence of body language, at those times when you want to make it clear you are joking but don't want to go all-out and put in an emoticon.


During my almost-week I noticed, not only that everyone around me in all areas of life seemed to be watching the end of my sentences ready to pull me up if I accidentally used one, but also that I found my own voice feeling duller and duller. As my finger hovered time and time again over 'that key' on the keyboard I would pause and mentally shrink backwards, like a shy kid who wants to crack a joke but worries that others might not get it or worse that they might misunderstand it. I found it made me self-conscious. And, bizarrely, not only in writing. In speech too!

I ended up mentally yearning to add an exclamation but resorting to some sneaky tricks to avoid doing so, for example:

  1. :) or ;)
    using a smiley can replace an exclamation albeit with the rather unfortunate effect of seeming cutesy.  I found I got almost as creative with emoticons as I used to be back during all those years that began with 199-!
  2. {nothing}
    Put nothing, no form of punctuation, at the end. Does not work - especially if you're trying to be funny. Putting nothing at the end of a sentence feels vaguely naked
  3. "."
    A full stop, otherwise known as a period to US folks. (I grew up in the US and the UK so henceforth in this post I will call it a "full stop" as 'period' makes me titter almost as much as the word "iPad" did when the name of that wondrous gadget was first announced last year!) A full stop works just fine for serious stuff. Obviously. For humor a "." seems too final. Too dour. Too disturbingly sensible.

    A full stop is ok for deadpan - and I do like deadpan - but I've got to be honest: being a girl, deadpan frequently backfires on me. If I crack a deadpan 'I'm-playing-dumb-here' kind of joke (god-forbid about something techie or scientific) most blokes will seriously** think that I am being seriously dumb. Dyeing my hair blonde has just made this worse, so as much as I like deadpan humor, guys really don't get it coming from a girl.

    ** Er, guys, I really DO KNOW that Taco Bell is not a Mexican Phone company but it's funnier for us both if I play along, so suck up that fear of being politically incorrect and just laugh! ;)

  4. ASCII, hex and HTML e.g. !
    Well, I thought it was cute!  Of course it doesn't really work because most humans don't speak ASCII. (Also see 3 above re: deadpan. Guys just can't be sure it wasn't a dumb broad making an accidental - but geekily bloody hilarious! - typo.)
  5. a "mehclamation" point ¡
    This one proved quite handy (although some people thought it was the letter i.  It's not as you can see: i ¡ but let's face it you'd have to be an eagle-eyed font-loving geek to spot that in a tweet!) It's actually quite handy if you want to do this on the iPhone/iPad just hold down the exclamation and you'll have the mehclamation on a menu.

So at the end of trying all these different things to avoid exclaiming when I just wanted to EXCLAIM! I realized sometimes you just have to!

So, what did I learn???
Mainly I learned what I already knew before I started: I use exclamation marks too much! It's something I've known for years and long have I watched and wondered at writers who seem to get by without using them and yet manage to be funny without their jokes being misconstrued or offence being taken. Quite probably it has never occurred to them to think otherwise (in which case I sincerely hope they are not reading this, lest they develop a sudden punctuational self-consciousness and destroy their own diamond - yet understated - wit!!)

Am I using them less now?
Perhaps. I'm certainly thinking about it more. I might even go as far as to say it's made me rephrase things more precisely – which is always good as it aids brevity**.

If you think you overuse exclamations too I would really recommend you try your own exclamation point 'fast' - if only because it makes you think about how you mean something to be heard, rather than just the words on the page. And hopefully maybe you will do better at it than me! Let me know!!

- Thanks for reading!

Next week!! Getting rid of those two most-overused habits — the m-dash and… the ellipsis!

** And of course if you've read THIS far down this page, you know well that brevity is NOT one of my strong points! 😉