Steve Chatterton
Will Write for Food

350: Let’s talk about commitment

January 14th, 2016 by Steve

350

So, 350 words a day. Doesn’t sound like much. And you get weekends off. And in a year you get over 90,000 words. Sounds great, right?

But how much commitment are we talking about? What does 350 words actually look like?

It looks like many things. In a paperback, depending on formatting and style, 350 words will run the length of a page to a page and a half. That’s not that much. You can read that in no time. Piece of cake, right?

I just looked at my first post in this series, and found I could read the whole thing on my laptop without scrolling. This isn’t some gargantuan pile of verbiage we’re talking about. It’s quite small. Bite-sized chunks of witticism, pint-sized truth bombs, and infinitesimal bon mots. It’s almost impossible to express a complete thought in much less. Well, okay, that might be pushing it a little, but you get the picture.

Various factors will affect how soon you can reach your goal. Mental focus, preparedness, level of distraction level, typing speed, etc. You can reach your goal in under half an hour if you go at an average rate of twelve words a minute. That’s not a lot, is it? It’s not the blinding speed of a secretarial professional, perhaps. But keep in mind you’re not just taking dictation; you’re composing. You’re creating something new the world has never seen before. These things take some time.

To get a better idea of just how much time these things take, I timed yesterday’s writing session. In the span of forty-five minutes I managed to get down 554 words. They weren’t all brilliant, and there’s no guessing how many will survive. But they’re there now. That’s all that counts. The thing is, I averaged 12.3 words per minute (wpm). Not too shabby. Especially when you consider the dogs were being a bloody nuisance the whole time. They insisted on going out and coming back in at least half a dozen times. But even with all that to contend with, I surprised myself and had a productive day. Perhaps you’ll surprise yourself, too.

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350: Day 1

January 4th, 2016 by Steve

350

Well, it’s that time again. Time to take one of those dumb story ideas of mine and see how far I can run with it. You know, sort of what I tried last year only to throw it out halfway through because I didn’t do my due diligence and my second act turned into this big, mushy, aimless pile of garbage I refused to show to anyone. So this time around I’ll do better. Because it’s almost inconceivable I could do worse.

I’m following Chuck Wendig’s plan to pump out 350 words a day every weekday so I get a finished first draft in a year. See image above for a quick synopsis. Wish me luck.

While I go, I’m going to periodically drop little posts like this. Primarily to act as a diary about the thoughts and planning and processes going into the project, but also as sort of a reference for what 350 words really looks like. It sort of looks like this. This right here. I’m going to make each post approximately 350 words long. So you can read it on your smartphone in the bathroom and finish up before you’re done. So you can see how doable the plan really is.

350 words really isn’t a lot. It’s wee. Tiny. Minuscule. You can do it standing on your head. I’ve pumped out over 200 words already and I’ve barely even started. Because that’s the thing, really: once you get going, once you figure out the thread of the story you want to tell and start putting your ducks in a row you’ll find that 350 words comes pretty darn easy. It’s a simple manner of planning and execution. Now, I’m no expert on the process, but I’m going to do all I can to become one and so help me if I can help others through the same process I’m going to do it.

We’re now just over 300 words. See how easy that was? Virtually painless. Right? Right.

Check back soon for more short posts on my favourite writing guides, my writers group, and all my other tools, etc. Okay, that’s 350. I’m done.

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Time for an Overhaul

June 23rd, 2015 by Steve

book-spines

Oh, hi! Remember me? It’s the guy who thought everything was going great with his book. What’s that? How’s that working out for me? Not so hot, truth be told.

I hit a bump in the road. A pretty major one at that. Several things were wrong with what I had. I think the biggest thing was that I hadn’t planned well enough. I was writing a detective story, but I didn’t have a solid grasp on what needed to happen. As a result, I ended up going off on a pretty major tangent. Also, I forgot about a key piece of evidence. I should have paid better attention. The story should have gone in a completely different direction. Oh well.

Everything ground to a halt at 22,422 words. Not too bad, though. In retrospect, let’s think of it as a little light stretching before running the marathon. Warm up is crucial, right?

In the last couple of weeks I’ve learned a fair bit about character sketches. So I’m going to take a break and work up better character sketches for the next attempt. My first sketches were sketchy at best. (Buh-dump-bump!) Some were non-existent. So, my next kick-at-the-can will have better thought-out personalities interacting with each other. And that should help me stay on track better.

Recently, I also realized I know a retired police officer. She’s agreed to help give me insight to investigative process. I need a better understanding of how real police would prioritize this investigation. Hopefully she can help me out in that regard.

So I’m optimistic about this. It’s not a grinding halt. I’ll finish the story, and it will be much better this time around. Yeah, yeah. That’s the ticket!

Better stories through better planning. Giddy-up!

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Hemingway App Review

June 8th, 2015 by Steve

hemingway-app

Hemingway App is a new program designed to help in the editing process. It let’s edit your text down to something lean, mean and easy to read. It lets you know when your sentences are getting difficult to read, when you’re using a complex phrase that could be worded more simply, when you’re using too many adverbs, and when you’re using the passive voice. It counts you words and your sentences, and gives you guideline targets for adverbs and passive voice.

It also gives you a readability grade. Lower is better. A score of Grade 5 literally means someone would need a Grade 5 education to get their head around what you wrote.

For a point of reference, I put some Jean Jacques Rousseau into Hemingway App. I loathed having to read Rousseau at university, and the app backed me up, giving Rousseau a Grade 19 (Poor) readability. It rated every sentence very hard to read.

For contrast, I popped in some lines from Earnest Hemingway’s short Hills Like White Elephants. As one would hope, he hit it out of the park.

Readability: Grade 1 (Good)

  • 0 of 10 sentences are hard to read.
  • 0 of 10 sentences are very hard to read.
  • 0 phrases have simpler alternatives.
  • 0 adverbs. Well done.
  • 0 uses of passive voice.

Good on you, Mr. Hemingway. Apparently, you have quite the future ahead of you.

To see how I might fare, I put in one of my short stories and let the app analyze it.

Readability: Grade 5 (Good)

  • 13 of 84 sentences are hard to read.
  • 11 of 84 sentences are very hard to read.
  • 2 phrases have simpler alternatives.
  • 12 adverbs. Aim for 11 or fewer.
  • 1 use of passive voice. Aim for 17 or fewer.

Clearly not as elegent as Mr. Hemingway. So I proceeded to use the app as an editor, letting it tell me where to whittle my prose down. In less than an hour, I got this score:

Readability: Grade 3 (Good)

  • 0 of 114 sentences are hard to read.
  • 0 of 114 sentences are very hard to read.
  • 0 phrases have simpler alternatives.
  • 9 adverbs. Aim for 11 or fewer.
  • 0 uses of passive voice.

My sentences still ramble for a bit, but I’ve got the readability down from Grade 5 to Grade 3.

Is it actually better? I think maybe it is. I have a tendency to ramble on, and use too many subordinate clauses, as the unedited text I bashed out for this review will bear witness to.

But let’s let you be the judge. Below is the updated version of my story Grasshopper, Ant. Better? Let me know what your thoughts are on Hemingway App in the comments below.

Once upon time, Clive reveled in the warm spring air. He frolicked about, dancing and singing. He praised nature in all its glory as he hopped from leaf to leaf, eating to his heart’s content. He was grateful indeed for his powerful hind legs.

Clive was the living embodiment of living in the now. He wasted no thoughts dwelling on the past, nor did he worry about the future. The only things that mattered to him were what he could see with his own eyes in the here and now. Things like sunshine and daisies and dewdrops. That was what mattered to him. And jumping. Jumping high. Jumping far. Getting a bird’s eye view of the grass all around him so he could find all the best places to eat.

One glorious spring day Clive came across another bug crawling along on the ground. It was smaller and darker than he was. It had pathetically short legs that would have made jumping nigh impossible. Yet Clive was a curious sort, so he hopped on over and introduced himself.

“Hi there,” said Clive as he landed abruptly in the other bug’s path. “I’m Clive. What’s your name, friend?”

“Bloody h***!” said the smaller bug.

“That’s an odd name,” said Clive. “But I’ve learned to celebrate differences and revel in the diversity of creation. Hi there, Bloody H***!”

“Isn’t that nice,” said the smaller bug. “Look, my name’s not Bloody H***. That was an interjection blurted out in surprise. You scared the bejesus out of me, jumping out of nowhere like that. You can call me Rodney, if you like.”

“Hi Rodney! I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you’re not a grasshopper.”

“That’s right, Clive. I’m an ant, from the anthill on the other side of that tree.”

“Uh huh. Uh huh. And what are you doing? Got time to play?”

“Sorry, Clive,” said the ant, “but I’m gathering food all day today. Winter is coming. I’ve got to do my bit to make sure everyone in my colony has enough to eat so we make it through to next spring. My queen always says, ‘Winter is hard, but you’ve got to get through it. A bug’s got to eat and that’s all there is to it.’”

The ant was truly sorry. He would give anything to kick up his heels, unwind, and chat with the grasshopper. But he realized all his ant friends and relations were still plugging away at it. Foraging like the dickens. Starting to make him look bad.

“Perhaps some other time,” said Clive, ever the optimist.

“Stranger things have happened,” said Rodney noncommittally.

***

Spring segued into glorious summer, and the bug’s paths crossed yet again.

“Rodney, right?” asked Clive, as he lay on his back on the petals of an open flower.

“That’s right, Clive.” Rodney marched around a tree carrying a seed over his head. “What are you up to today, buddy?”

“Sunbathing,” said Clive. “Though I’m getting rather bored of it. I think I’d much rather be singing. Or dancing. Mind you, I’ve always wanted to write a novel, or perhaps a screenplay. It’s about a cop who solves mysteries in her spare time. Perhaps I should make a start on that. Unless of course you’d maybe like to jump and play together.”

“I appreciate the invitation, mack,” said Rodney, “I really do. But the queen’s upped the foraging quota this week. I’ll be busting my ass till sundown at least.”

“Maybe another day,” said the grasshopper.

Rodney felt guilty about getting his friend’s hopes up. He knew his commitments would never allow this relationship to become anything more.

“Listen, mack,” said Rodney.

“It’s Clive, actually.”

“Yeah. Listen. You might want to think about gathering some stuff for yourself sooner than later. Remember? ‘Winter is hard, but you’ve got to get through it. A bug’s got to eat and that’s all there is to it.’”

Clive pondered this nugget of wisdom for a millisecond. “I wonder what’s happening in Milan right now,” he blurted out. “Or Paris. Haven’t you always wanted to bound merrily down the Champs-Élysées?”

But Rodney had already shuffled off out of earshot, his prized seed held high.

***

The sun-filled delight of summer soon turned into a cold and rainy autumn. A cold, miserable winter followed quickly. The ants stayed in their anthill, for snow blanketed the outside world. They had all the food they needed to get through until spring.

One day, though, just before Christmas, Rodney got a message. There was someone at the front door to see him. When he got there, he saw his friend the grasshopper. Clive looked chilled to the bone, and emaciated from weeks of going hungry.

“What’s become of my glorious grasshopper friend?” said Rodney. “You used to have it all. How I envied your carefree life of leisure.”

“I was reckless,” said Clive. “Please forgive me, my dearest friend, but I never heeded your words of wisdom. Had I paid attention to your guidance, I might not be in such a miserable state. I might have something to eat besides endless fields of snow as far as the eye can see. I miss the juicy blades of baby grass. The leaves of the mighty oak. The stately oats that grow in the fields over the hill. What I wouldn’t give, dear friend-”

But we’ll never know what he wouldn’t give. At that moment, Rodney’s friends and relations poured out of the anthill. They swarmed all over the grasshopper, ripping him limb from limb. They carrying the severed chunks of grasshopper down to their queen below.

Rodney picked up his friend’s disembodied head. The antennae still twitching. Eyelids still blinking. Mandibles soundlessly asking Why? He said, “Listen, mack, I tried to tell you. Winter is hard, and I’m sorry you blew it, but a bug’s got to eat and that’s all there is to it.”

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Days 25-30

May 29th, 2015 by Steve

book-spines

Yesterday I did a lot. Over Fourteen hundred words. Double my daily minimum. Quadruple the suggested minimum from Chuck Wendig’s original sinister plan. So I said, “You there. Yes, you. I mean me, of course. You’ve done some good work today. Take tomorrow off. Have a long weekend.” That was the plan, anyway.

Then my son had a bad dream at about 4:45 this morning. So I got up early and helped him get settled down again, but then I swore to myself I would get straight back to bed to bed and sleep away as much of the day as I could.

And then the cat got sick.

And when the cat gets sick, he makes this unholy noise. It almost sounds like he’s calling, “Mama.” He ralphed all over the carpet in the process, so that was nice.

So there I am at 5:15 in the a-effing-m, trying to disinfect the carpet without swearing my head off, when it dawned on me that sleep was a goner and I may as well make the best use of my new found time, so I pumped out another five hundred and then called it a day before the rest of the household started asking for breakfast.

Time to start killing my darlings

Kill your darlings! It’s a time-honoured piece of advice for writers. I have no clue who said it first, but I’ve heard it a million times. Most people think the darlings are your characters and end up going all Macbeth on them, but really it just means you should be prepared to sacrifice all the precious little conceits you came up with going into a project.

I started this writing project with the idea that it would be novel length (about 90k words) and it would tell the story of a missing persons case from three points of view. The first POV would be from a neighbour, Arnie, written in the first person. The second POV would be from the lead investigator, written in the third person because a good cop has to distance herself in such situations. The third POV would be the missing kid’s mother writing a series of letters to her missing child at the recommendation of a grief counselor. This was my idea, and when I came up with it I instantly married it, vowing to make it happen, swearing to defend it to the death from all potential naysayers.

There were actually no naysayers. Everyone I mentioned it to thought it was a good idea. But, in execution, I’m growing dissatisfied with it. The cop’s life really isn’t that interesting. She plays the tired old trope of the officer torn between family and ‘the job,’ and I’m just not sold on her part of the story. I figure if I’m bored writing it, how can I expect anyone to read it. And the mom. Wow. Over the top maudlin grief. I actually want the reader to forget every once in a while that they’re reading about a family tragedy, so maybe it’s time to cut that idea too.

So, the revised battle-plan stands like this (as of today)…

Just keep on writing as much as I can in the first POV (Arnie) and see how far I can take it. See it through to the end and see how many words I get out of it. Don’t go back. Just keep plunging forward in full-on Hemingway mode and see what needs to be done when I finally sit down to read it through at the end. Maybe I’ll decide to flesh out the two abandoned perspectives in the end. Maybe I’ll go back and eradicate them and weave any necessary info into Arnie’s line.

Who knows. that’s the great thing about it all. No one expects anything of me at the moment, so I can fiddle around with it all I want knowing in the end that I’ll be lucky if I can get a handful of beta readers to skim it.

Today’s stats:

Day 25: 904 words
Day 26: 1,009 words
Day 27: 800 words
Day 28: 825 words
Day 29: 1,419 words
Day 30: 508 words

Six-day total: 5,465 words

Accumulated total: 22,237
Average daily word count: 741.2333333333333 (Nice!)
Progress toward target: 24.43626373626374% (Almost 25%)

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