How to focus when writing

Last Wednesday I sat down for the first time in four months to do some Real Writing.  Having spent the summer working on my website, my brand, my new editions and a million other admin-type things, it was a relief to sit down and so some Creating for a change.

The first day didn’t go well.  I hadn’t expected it to.  It isn’t always easy to get back into the saddle, after all.  Earlier this year, I had written most of a new Exodus Sequence short story, what will be the second story in the second volume.  Thinking that the story had failed, I abandoned it, planning to return to it later.  Upon rereading it, it didn’t seem too bad after all.  The main character was entertaining and funny.  Since the story is primarily a character sketch, that was quite important.  So it was with more confidence that I approached it on Thursday.

Imagine my delight to discover, at the bottom of the Word document, something called “Focus.”  I clicked on it to discover Writers’ Heaven:  nothing on the screen except the document with a black background instead of that pale grey glare you usually get when using Word.  No ribbon.  No taskbar.  Suddenly I was exactly where I wanted to be:  inside my short story.  I was focussed, just exactly as the new document view intended.

Now imagine my horror when, on Friday, that Focus view was gone.  I couldn’t find it anywhere and couldn’t either recreate it, though I did try.  I googled it.  I studied the Microsoft website.  Then I got into a chat box with someone from MS.  By this time, I was in tears.  I was actually sobbing.  Well, shit, you might think;  what’s she crying about.  Some stupid gizmo on Word that vanished.  But it was just the last straw, I think.  I have spent the summer battling.  For quite a while, I was at war with KDP.  Our emails burned with politeness but weeks went by with an agonising problem I couldn’t solve (more about that in another blog).  The battles with editing, with new covers, with getting things to fit, with streamlining almost thirty manuscripts………

Losing my Focus gizmo was that proverbial straw and I was the camel’s back.  Through all those months of slog, all I wanted to do was write.  I wanted to escape to my funny little universe that I’ve created.  I wanted to feel like myself again.

In the end, though the MS support person tried really, really hard, we couldn’t find the Focus gizmo and couldn’t recreate its brilliance.  I realised finally that something like this had happened before:  after a major update from MS, I got a brilliant new thing on Word – only for it to disappear the next day.  You know what this is?  It’s a way to make you realise that your Word is old and shit and that you should go off and spend a million dollars a year on Office 365 because THAT’S  where that Focus gizmo is.  It doesn’t exist in the cheap MS Office for Home and Student 2016.  It was a fucking carrot. 

Realising that, I closed down my computer, made myself an enormous cup of tea, and started again, wanting to just wrap up a sentence or two.  Deciding to experiment first, I opened another document, clicked a few things and discovered I COULD recreate Focus mode.  I can’t get the black background, though the dark grey is quite nice.  I can get rid of the ribbon and have figured how to get rid of the taskbar (temporarily).  This is great.  It means I can now write without distraction.

It’s not as good as real Focus mode, though.  Focus mode is achieved with one click.  One more click and you’re back in normal mode with your pretty blue ribbon at the top, so it’s just a temporary thing.  By creating this dark grey background, it means that ALL documents I open now are like this.  Even Excel, which surprised me. 

To achieve this, go to Options/General and select Dark Grey for your Office Theme.  To get rid of your ribbon, there’s a weeny arrow called Ribbon Display Options at the top of your document.  And to get rid of your taskbar (while you work), right click on it and select Taskbar Settings, then Automatically Hide the Taskbar in Desktop Mode.  All these things are easy to get out of, too.  Just hover your mouse and everything reappears.

So this is how I’m focusing on my writing.  Grey mode.  It’s a bit like being on a Federation starship in reserve power mode. 

As for actual writing and getting to the end of the story…..that’s yet another tale for another time.

(You can read about that here:

Grey Mode
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Book Review: Blue Mars

Finishing the Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a mark of honour, rather like being able to say you’ve read War and Peace or all seven volumes of Proust.  With ten years between each volume, I can’t say this series has set me alight.  This doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant.  It is.  The descriptions of Mars;  the understanding of colonising or terraforming a difficult plant;  the politics, economics and emotions involved:  all are a work of genius.  Yet it remains dull reading.

It’s so long ago (over twenty years) since I read Red Mars that I don’t remember much of it, aside from some woman having a lot of babies.  Green Mars was marginally more interesting but Blue considerably less so.  It also feels MUCH longer.  While the science is fascinating, the story isn’t.  This is no doubt because there is hardly any story, or, at least, the one that unfolds is in such broad strokes that it leaves you utterly uninvolved.  There isn’t a single character that is likeable.  Some of them are truly awful.  Mostly it doesn’t matter what you think because you can hardly tell the characters apart anyway, and even if you do manage to remember a character from one novel to the next, it doesn’t matter either because there is absolutely zero plot.

Quite a lot of the writing isn’t about Mars at all but extremely lengthy digressions into subjects like quantum mechanics, memory retrieval, the super-elderly, a planet-wide flood on Earth, and the extremes of overpopulation as a result of the never-gonna-let-you-die treatment, as well as excursions to other planets that feel like doorstop fillers.  While all these subjects are interesting by themselves, they aren’t part of any plot.  Oh, wait, haven’t I already said?  There is no plot.

Some people go to Mars.  Stuff happens.  Most of them live.  Some more arrive.  They live too.  Or die.  Whatever.  Blue Mars indicates water and while the thought of oceans of Mars is just wonderful, this delight doesn’t come off the page at all.  Robinson’s writing is flatter than flat.

I really wish I could say I had enjoyed this trio of books.  They are, after all, highly regarded and have won all sorts of awards.  While the trilogy is truly visionary, it’s also too impersonal to achieve greatness.  I found myself skimming many pages and not actually missing anything.  I did the same with War and Peace (there are some very long, dull tracts in it) BUT the difference is that you have an emotional investment in the characters.  You love them.  You want to know what happens.  You care who they marry and how many children they have.  I didn’t care about any of Robinson’s characters.  As a result, I didn’t care about Mars or any of the other planets, moons and asteroids being terraformed.  I would say that this is probably not how you want your reader to feel.

If this was an endurance test, then by finishing the series, at least I can say I have passed.

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Movie Review: Star Trek

The title of this post makes it look as if I’m about to review the entire Star Trek universe.  And by golly, it’s an enormous universe!  The original series, the next generation, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise.  Not to mention the movies, starting with, um, Star Trek: The Movie (although actually it was called Star Trek: The Motion Picture) all the way up to the original series reboot.  Not to mention the new TV series, Discovery.  And then there was the animated series, about a gazillion spin-off books, and Star Trek Continues (about which I confess I know nothing).

What I’m trying to review is Star Trek.  The movie.  But not the Motion Picture.  If you follow me.  You’d have thought they could have come up with a slightly more interesting title than just, you know, Star Trek.  Star Trek: The Beginning would have worked for me.  Or Star Trek: An Alternate History, because that’s pretty much where it was heading.

I saw this when it first came out and found myself zoning in on things which ultimately don’t matter.  Things like:  oh, look, he looks just like Spock!  Hang on, the Enterprise never looked that smart and high-tech.  That’s a Romulan?  He doesn’t look like a Romulan.  Blimey, look, it’s the real Spock (getting on a bit, isn’t he…..)  As a result, the plot of the movie pretty much went in the one ear and out the other.  I even managed to forget, when watching the two sequels, that we were on an alternate timeline (history having been changed and all by the events of the first movie).  The whole movie kind of disappeared into my memory banks, forgotten.

So it was an absolute delight, watching it again, to find that it’s actually a really good movie!  The plot is terrific, the character development superb, and the visuals just stunning. 

The faces are also more familiar now:  Kirk’s dad is played by Thor, his mum by Snow White’s daughter. This makes me positively howl with laughter.  All my favourite universes colliding in one movie:  Star Trek, Marvel, Once Upon a Time.  Not to mention Lord of the Rings:  that’s Bones as Eomer, the sexy one with the long blond hair, a spear, a scowl and a horse.

By the third Star Trek reboot movie, Chris Pine is starting to look more like William Shatner when he was young than William Shatner ever did (i.e. he’s better looking now that he’s a bit older).  I loved the second one with Benedict Cumberbatch but the most enjoyable one so far has to be the most recent, Beyond.  So it’s with great sorrow that I recently read that this reboot series of films has been cancelled.  Just when I was really getting to like the characters.  It doesn’t help that the young actor Anton Yelchin, playing a brilliant Chekov, was killed in a car accident.

As a lifelong Star Trek fan, I have to be grateful that Gene Roddenberry’s universe has prevailed. I was fourteen when the original series turned up, already old and creaky, on South African television, itself a very late starter, launching sometime in the 70’s.  I was instantly captivated but hardly ever got to watch it due to the inconvenience of life. 

Live long and prosper, indeed.

However, even if you aren’t particularly into the whole Star Trek thing, this movie is still a good one.  Catch it if you can.  I think this universe is going to start going where I may not follow.

The Narada vs The Enterprise
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Am I sitting comfortably?

In my Real World job, I do a great deal of sitting.  I don’t like sitting much.  I work in a library and would much rather be in the stacks – I’ll do anything as long as it’s with a book rather than a human being.  But this isn’t how the real world works out.  I sit in front of a computer for hours at a time and deal with the Dreaded Public.  
The chairs at work are, of course, ancient and ghastly and horrendously uncomfortable.  It was only after six months of agony that one of my colleagues remembered the “Vulcan” chair.  Vulcan was his real name, a Turkish bloke who had once worked in the library before returning to Turkey with his family.  He’d had back problems too and a special chair had been bought for him.  It was bloody brilliant, that chair – I was comfortable from the first moment I sat in it.  I was quite happy to remain in the Vulcan chair for the rest of my prison sentence. 
Sorry, I mean, work life.
However, a new young bloke was then hired for the afternoon shift.  Also tall, he preferred the Vulcan chair as well and an all-out battle has ensued.  As his shift starts at 1.30, halfway through my lunch hour, he will invariably be sitting in the chair when I come back from lunch.  Feeling mean and guilty, I would have to ask for the chair, feeling that it was somehow my fault that he had to sit in one of the crap chairs.  The fact that he is 30 years younger than I am and has never had a day’s back pain makes no difference – I am the one in the wrong.  
I raised this issue at a staff meeting and my manager got so irritated with me that she has barely spoken to me since.  The fact that she sits in an extremely fancy chair, the sort you might expect to see on the bridge of a spaceship, isn’t lost on me.  However, the issue desk manager was far more interested in my plight and set about the long process of getting me a new chair.  This has involved several million emails and an appointment with Occupational Health, an event
made excruciating by the fact that the interviewer was being examined and she kept looking at the examiner instead of me.  Hello.  I’m the person getting a sore neck because you’ve placed my chair at a right angle to your desk.  Honestly, the shit you go through just to get a chair.
Anyway, this is how I’ve ended up in a Chair Lab testing chairs.  I didn’t even know we had a chair lab.  It seems to be used primarly by disabled students who have access to better equipment in the lab than anywhere else.  When I say” lab” I don’t mean bright, white, shiny and clean.  No windows, stuffy and hot, chairs higgledy-piggledy all over the place.  Screens at odd angles.  No eating because of mice.  So less of the “lab” than just “basement room.”
Today I’m spending an hour sitting on each chair I’ve chosen (I managed to narrow it down to three) in order to decide – and I have to get it right because this is money being spent On Me.  The best one has a rocking action which means I can get up quickly (there’s a lot of bouncing up and down at work, fetching stuff and helping people etc) but it doesn’t have great upper back support.  The one with the best upper back support kind of “hugs” you but it also forces your elbows forward slightly.  Not comfy.  And the third option doesn’t do anything discernible except be a chair. 
In the end, I’d be happy to stay in the Vulcan chair.  None of this would be happening if it wasn’t for the fact that the manager is all over the new young guy at work, simply because he is young and a guy.  She doesn’t like women unless they fawn at her feet.  As I don’t, I’ve been rendered invisible.  Why can’t I get another chair like the Vulcan one?  Because that option wasn’t available.  And besides, I was supposed to be getting a new chair because the Vulcan chair isn’t good enough.  I’ve actually gone through this whole rigmarole so that a squit of 23 can stop sighing heavily whenever he has to give up The Best Chair.
Hey, you know what, I’ve just realised – for about the hundred millionth time – that I really fucking hate my job.  I mean, it was inevitable.  I was always doomed to hate everything that wasn’t staying at home and being a writer, which is what I like doing best (even if it doesn’t pay).  It goes without saying that my chair at home.  Is.  Bliss.  

I think I’ll go for this one
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Is it worth bringing out new editions of your self-published books?

Yes, definitely.  I could just leave it there!  There are so many reasons, not least of which is checking for errors.  I personally like updating my published books if I bring out a new book – I would definitely want to add a blurb for the new book at the back of the earlier books! 

When I realised I was two books behind, new editions became vital.  Not only did I want to add “Commences” to the “Also by ….” but also add its blurb to the Fleet Quintet novels at the back of the book.  I decided to go several steps further, though, and standardise the layout of every single edition.  For the paperbacks, this mean the same font, the same size font, the same layout, the same fancy font for the title page and chapter titles etc etc. For the ebooks, there’s slightly less work as the font type and size is the same throughout, but an ebook gives you the chance to add links.  And you have to make sure that every single one works.

This is a lot of work.

I have six published novels, one published novella and ten published short stories.  There are three different platforms:  KDP ebook, KDP paperback, and Smashwords.  This means that I may be working on three different editions of one single title. Once you start multiplying these numbers, you may understand why I felt a bit exhausted just contemplating so much work.  I mean, why bother. 

Pride comes into it.  As well as the desire to have a beautiful product to sell.  Quite a few of my books are going to be getting gorgeous new professional covers.  I want the inside to look professional as well!  Yes, I know – lots of people get OTHER people to do the work for them.  This is not how I work.  I know what I want and how I want it and I know I can do a good job.  Why pay for something that just requires time, patience and dedication?

I may be completely mad by the end of summer but I will also be able to move on from my beautiful new editions to other things.  All those other novels that are dying to be written!  As September always feels like a fresh start to the year, I aim to have my new editions out by the end of August.  Providing I don’t go completely cross-eyed checking all the font sizes of the return marks…….

Something to sing about
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When self-publishing becomes a major league drag

Just uploaded my gorgeous new cover (from The Cover Collection) for THE EXODUS SEQUENCE!  It’s considerably more noticeable than the cover I cobbled together, with really rich, bright colours and spacey enough to tell what genre it is.

I also shortened the very long and clunky subtitle:  “A Collection of Connection Science Fiction Novelettes”.  There were two things wrong with this.  First, it wasn’t accurate.  The collection contains fantasy, horror and experimental as well.  Secondly, the word “novelettes” is extremely dodgy.  Technically, it’s entirely accurate.  A novelette is longer than a short story but shorter than a novella.  Most of the stories in this collection are quite long, so it seemed quite a good idea to call them novelettes.  

However, the word “novelette” has a derogatory meaning which I didn’t know about.  Novelettes are usually lightweight romances, rather trivial and flimsy – at least, they used to be.  While this meaning is no longer in use, it was enough to tarnish the word for me and I decided to drop it from the subtitle.  It’s kind of long and clumsy anyway – I thought my short story collection would do better if I called it just that:  “A Collection of Connected Short Stories.”

All this is just great.  There’s just one thing that has gone horrible wrong:  Amazon hates it.  Amazon won’t change the subtitle.  It’s a technical thing to do with ISBNs and such (so this affects the paperback, not the ebook) but however you look at it, I can’t change it.  Or the website won’t let me.  Amazon Bookshelf is perfectly aware that I’ve changed the subtitle as I’ve already uploaded the lovely new cover, but even so:  it won’t give me access to changing the details.
Well, fuck, is about all I can say.  The only option I have is to unpublish the current edition of The Exodus Sequence and publish a whole new one.  Because, you know, I just don’t have enough complications in my life and I’ve got SO much time.  Worse, the immense of work I do to get my books out there doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.  The hours, the time, the blood, sweat and tears – the many, many tears – none of it has paid off in any way at all.  Who on God’s earth is going to even notice that I have a whole new edition out there when no one even noticed the first edition.
It’s all very sucky and I may just abandon the attempt in favour of lunch.

In the meantime, enjoy my lovely new cover.

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The Substantials

It was only after I started writing the Exodus Sequence series that I discovered that collections of connected short stories were already in existence.  Even Wikipedia has a page on this, calling them a short story cycle.  My reason for using this format was that there were too many characters over too vast a range of time and any kind of novel I could write would be clumsy and too long.  I liked the idea of focusing on a single moment in a character’s life in a story that seemed complete, that could stand alone, while having a thousand threads connecting it to other stories that seemed quite diverse.

The overall connecting idea is that all the stories have something to do – often indirectly – with the loss of Atlantis.  It isn’t obvious at first what is meant by Atlantis since there is no referral to Plato’s account nor the usual accepted myths and legends that have since been developed.  For me, Atlantis wasn’t a society that existed ten thousand years ago, nor do I regard it as some kind of marvellous utopia.  I don’t think there is a shred of evidence of it ever having existed – not because it didn’t exist but because it existed so long ago.  There is no miraculous building that can stay up for millions of years – and, for me, this is when the Atlantians* walked on this planet.  That there are no bones to find is because there are no bones.  (*Though I never call them Atlantians or Atlanteans, or whatever).

Many of the stories are set in the near or distant future, fewer in the present or past.  The connections are subtle, sometimes even unintentional.  Characters appear more than once but are not always recognisable.  These differences go beyond simple name changes – it’s often entire lives that change.  Mars is a strong connector as is various aspects of a war fought in the future.  The name Miranda crops up often but it isn’t always obvious who she is or was.  Later in the first volume, the Golden Queen thread picks up, a story-line I have already developed fully – the notes for this series are unintentionally copious.

The stories are arranged in trilogies, with three trilogies per volume.  Each trilogy also has its connections:  for example, in the first trilogy, attention is drawn to a mysterious alien and there is evidence of a war ended (Wired), a war begun (Reflected) and a war that is still current (Walked).  In the second trilogy, the connection is actually not revealed at all and won’t be until the second volume!  Many mysteries are created which are only unlocked in later stories, revelations which serve to unmask characters as much as Atlantis itself.

Some of the connections are immediately apparent:  the revelation in Spooked is discussed openly in Crashed.  The prison scenario is echoed in the first and last stories of the first volume, and again in the central trilogy.  Mars crops up in several stories, referenced or actually visited.  But it’s the themed connections that appeal to me the most:  the meaning of the title Reflected isn’t really understood until Caged.  Apparent immortality, lightly touched on in the first trilogy, is developed in Suicided and explained in Woken in great detail.

It should be understood, though, that the stories are not linear.  Nor have I written them in order of publication.  I’ve had to work out the best way to reveal information without signposting spoilers.  Despite this, the stories could be read in any order as they are stand-alone:  each one is complete within itself.  One short story, titled Sacrificed, went on for rather a long time and ended up being near-novel length.  So I wrote another rather long story, cobbled it on the end, believing it would make a novel.  It didn’t.  It was disastrous.  A single scene was rescued from Sacrificed and became Spooked, while the violence that opened the second story became Suicided.  The rest will appear – eventually – in stories yet to be written.  Sacrificed will, eventually, become the story that connects Spooked to Woken.

Work has already begun on Volume Two, with the first short story published as an ebook and in paperback.  It’s an extremely long short story, so long in fact that it’s actually a novella, coming in at over 45 000 words.  None of the stories are under 10 000, which is how I came to call them “substantials” – longer than a short story but not quite novella-length, they are thus substantial short stories!

You will find Shattered here and the first volume of The Exodus Sequence here.

A wonderful evening
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