Wednesday, 24 July 2013

What keeps you from completing that novel?

Most of us wannabe published writers don't have a good excuse. Unlike the characters in our novels, we aren't being hunted by mad serial killers; saving the world; or caught up in a whirl wind romance.

So why is it so hard to complete and publish that first novel?

I follow J A Konrath's blog and am always fascinated by stories of how people got past their own particular hurdles.

My biggest obstacle is my job. I'm an IT contractor/consultant and I spend most days managing complex projects; juggling tight timescales and developing applications, databases and reports for whichever company has chosen to employ me.

Lots of other people have similarly busy jobs or lives so I hope this will be relevant to you.

In December 2012 I started a three month project. The specification grew and I ended up taking four months to complete the project. I was the sole developer: coding the software, designing the user forms, writing the SQL (Structured Query Language) that enabled reports. I spent weeks on systems and business analysis; negotiated and agreed requirements with the clients; provided models and adjusted the requirements based on client feedback. I designed and developed the databases and wrote the user manuals. I ran training sessions for dozens of staff.

By the end of the project I was exhausted.

Yet somehow, during that time, I managed to come home and edit 10,000 words of a novel. It didn't seem enough.

I was dejected that I made so little progress on the novel until it hit me that what I do every single day at work is exactly like writing and editing a novel!

Characters: I have to get to know the people I meet on each new project. I have to understand them, find out what they want, even though they sometimes don't fully know themselves. Sometimes I can advise them, steer them in a direction that will hopefully result in the project delivering what they need. Other times I have to go with the flow and find a way to connect the dots to keep the project on track.

Story: Systems and business analysis is all about identifying the stories in each organisation. Why are these processes important? What happens next? How will this affect that? Where do we start? Where will we end up? What happens in the middle...?

Plot: Some processes are irrelevant and can be discarded. Others are vital and need to happen in exactly the right order. Different activities need to be carried out at points along the way. Sometimes the whole project can be thrown into disarray when a situation changes or a risk turns out to be a real problem.

Management: Whether I'm assigned them or not, I give each project deadlines. Milestones to help me quantify how I'm progressing and enable me to flag up if aspects of the project are taking longer than I expected.

Editing: In many ways - testing code; rewriting and refactoring; and redeveloping based on feedback is like the novel editing process. Iterating over and over until the finished product is ready for release.

After four months of hard graft I took note of what I had produced. It's taken me a few more months to work out what I wanted to say about it...
I developed:
  • 24 Database tables (all normalised to third form...)
  • 161 Database SQL Queries
  • 13 user forms
  • And produced 7669 lines of code (that worked out at 156 pages, single spaced...)
  • I wrote a Technical Manual which came to 65 pages (8,873 words)
  • Also an Administrators Manual: 52 pages (6,927 words)
The resulting business application is being used daily by over 200 people and is enabling the organisation to improve their productivity.

Oh, yeah, and I got paid...

I was struggling to edit a novel at the start of the year but finally realising that I practise editing skills every day was a huge boost to my confidence.

You will be using your own skills, day in and day out. Like me, you may have never connected what you do with writing and editing a book. So, what's keeping you from completing that novel?

Sunday, 21 July 2013

You can take the Scotsman out of Yorkshire...

You can take the Scotsman out of Yorkshire but you can't take Yorkshire out of my blood.

We've just returned from a week in the Yorkshire village of Hunmanby. Week one of this years two part holiday.

We lived in York from 1995 till 2005 apart from a two year absence when we worked in Tajikistan. I still feel a strong connection with York, our friends there, and Yorkshire itself. Some of my best friends are from or still live in Yorkshire.

After my last post on Scottish identity I've found it interesting reflecting while on holiday that while I still feel I belong in Yorkshire, I now feel that I am settled in Scotland.

We keep going back to York and Yorkshire for holidays as we find it a great place to unwind. This years holiday was, yet again, desperately needed. I've continued my coaching sessions with Frank and the topic of balance keeps cropping up. My life is far from balanced.

While I've been trying over the last year to rectify parts of this, especially spending time with my family, I've a long way to go.

Goal 58 was to do ten fun things with my family. If I can't manage that while on holiday then when can I manage it?

1. Go to the beach

Hunmanby is a few miles South West of Filey and only two miles from the Hunmanby Gap, a narrow road that leads down to a glorious six mile stretch of sand. We visited the beach several times and I managed to let some stress seep away as we walked, played and rested.

2. Build a sandcastle

I don't like swimming but do like building sandcastles. Here's one we made last week:

3. Kick a ball around with my kids

I find kicking a ball (or throwing one) to be a great stress reliever. Why don't I do this more often?
4. Eat ice-cream

We ate a lot of ice-cream last week. As most of the UK enjoys the current heatwave I cry havoc and say let lose the dogs of Global Warming... Bring it on!

5. Visit York's Chocolate Story

If you're looking for a fun way to spend an hour in York I highly recommend York's Chocolate Story! A guided tour of how the Rowntrees, Terry's and others turned York into the Chocolate city and transformed the lives of thousands of people by their ethical business practices.

At each stop on the tour we were given chocolate samples to try including some from the stages of transforming cacao into chocolate. The tour finishes with you making your own chocolate lolly and receiving a demonstration of how to make your own luxury handmade chocolates.

6. Go on an open top bus tour

York is a beautiful city. We had intended to visit York's Chocolate Story earlier in the week but it was booked out. On our way to a museum we saw one of the open top buses and changed our plans.

7. Laugh uncontrollably

Families are strange, weird, odd groups to be part of. At times we just want to get away for some peace and quiet but then when we manage that, we usually miss the chaos. We had no WiFi in the cottage we were renting. The TV had no record, pause, rewind. It was like taking a holiday twenty years ago. It was great (if frustrating at times). Life slowed down. We ate most of our meals together. It gave us a chance to be silly. To make fun of each other. To laugh.

8. Visit the sea life centre

My eldest is planning on a career as a Marine Biologist. We now always visit the nearest Sea Life exhibit when we're on holiday. This time in Scarborough. This seal gave me a wave...

9. Go to the cinema

We didn't manage to go to the cinema while we were away but I took the kids this weekend and highly recommend Monsters University. Much better than Despicable Me 2.

10. Play a game

We took several games with us and found a few waiting for us in the cottage. We spent quite a lot of time playing games. It was too hot to be outside a lot of the time but even so, we enjoy games.

We actually managed a family game of Civilization. (Thank you Sid Meier!) If you are familiar with the game, we took it all the way to the end enduring mass trading and movement sessions. My wife almost wiped me out but I hung on in there ... ;)

We also found an old Go game! I played one game with our youngest who I'm delighted to say beat me by one stone (having had a four stone handicap and some advice). She was playing black.

What fun things can you do with family or friends this summer?

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Is your identity Scottish, British or both?

I am both Scottish and British and generally glad to be both.

My identity changes depending on the situation I am in. Outside of Scotland I generally identify as Scottish. I lived in England for eight years and was fully accepted as Scottish by my English friends. I lived abroad for two years and found calling myself Scottish rather than British as generally I got a better reception. (Worldwide the films Braveheart and Highlander have done more for the Scottish reputation than almost anything else I know)

When in Scotland I identify as British.

Does this seem perverse?

Quite simply - I believe in the power of union. I believe people are stronger together; working together than we ever are apart.

We have all had different experiences. I've found that there are many people born in England and Northern Ireland that I get on with. Growing up on an island community in Scotland I was an outsider to many. Some accepted me for who I was, others did not.

Since then I have had close friends who were born in Scotland and many who were born South of the Border of across the water.

I do not exagerate when I state I would die to protect English and Northern Irish friends or that some of them have placed themselves in harms way to protect me.

A few people in Scotland seem to hold the view we would be stronger when separate - when the Scottish people control their own destiny. The reality is the Scottish people already control their own destiny, we have and have always had the power to influence and change anything we want within Scotland.

So why haven't we exercised that power?

I am for Union; I'm against independence from the UK but I perceive the debate around independence as an opportunity to challenge my fellow countrymen and women to get involved, start debating, start questioning, start acting.

If you cannot be bothered now to challenge MSPs and MPs about their decisions, there is little likelihood you will do so if we have independence.

If, on the other hand, you claim democracy now; make your voice heard now - then together we can make a difference! And if we make a difference now then we can continue to make a difference in a United Kingdom.