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Taking A Step Back From Your Writing

One thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that it’s okay to take a step back. Perspective is such a useful tool, especially when it comes to writing. I find it so refreshing to take a minute or an hour or a day or a week to just reassess where my story is going.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in such an inspired state of mind. I’ve written near to 20,000 words and it was easy, something that surprised me. However, I got to chapter seven of my novel and I knew that my work was becoming sloppy – not something I would want to put my name to. I know that it’s only a first draft, and I know that it’s not going to be perfect, but as a writer, I also know when my work is good, with potential to be better, and when it isn’t.

I can plan as much as I like but my characters will often do or say or feel things that I can’t predict. Sometimes this works in my favour. For example, in chapter five, my protagonist, Ellen, and her new friend are getting to know each other. As I wrote, I had such a clear understanding of where I wanted their relationship to go and I found that their conversations were already so natural, despite it being the first draft. This is probably because I’ve already written a short story about Ellen’s new friend – Penny, from It’s A Gift. As I already know so much about Penny, it was easy to write her in a realistic way. She and Ellen bounced off of each other and that made it fun to play around with their gestures and ticks.

However, other times it isn’t so simple. My seventh chapter takes place as Ellen is meeting a new character, Henry. Like in chapter five, I know where I want their relationship to go but I hadn’t thought enough about how they get there. I have scenes that I’ve written or outlined for future chapters, but I’ve never focused enough on how their relationship would start.

It was when I got halfway through Ellen and Henry’s first conversation that I realised I needed to stop. It was annoying me that this scene was harder for me to write than the ones before, and I didn’t understand what was so different. Rather than continuing to write and hoping for the best, hoping that I would be able to get my characters from point A to point B, I stopped. Sometimes, that can be the hardest thing to do. I needed to think, to figure out how to make the scene unfold realistically. I had to look at what I wanted to happen and realise what I needed to change in order for that to occur.

In the end, it wasn’t so much about change as it was about planning. I probably talk about the importance of planning your work out in every other post but it really is, in my opinion, the key to good writing.

I made a list of all the things that were annoying me about the scene between Ellen and Henry, and I’ll copy it below so that you can see where my mind was.

  • Ellen and Henry are acting like robots – how to make them more natural and realistic???
    • List their feelings/motives for the scene
    • Henry is annoyed at being assigned to watch Ellen but he knows he doesn’t have a choice – he’s also curious about Ellen’s power
    • Ellen is tired, and cautious because of what Maggie said, but she’s still not going to roll over and let Henry walk all over her
    • Other thoughts in the backs of their minds? Brothers etc.
    • Give them small habits/ticks – can bring up in other conversations – what does Henry do when he’s nervous/angry/suspicious – what does Ellen do when she’s scared/annoyed
  • I hate the setting. I can’t picture it in my mind. Possibly plan a small map to track their route and use the setting to impact their discussion:
    • Cold/warm
    • Busy/quiet
    • Raining/foggy
    • Can they see the sky? What time of day is it?
    • Plan the map with the Embassy across the road from the hospital but the hospital entrance round the other side – I know what I mean

As you can see, the scenario wasn’t the problem. It was a lack of understanding. I didn’t properly know what my characters thoughts and feelings were in this scene – aside from the 2D and obvious – so of course they were stale and robotic. I didn’t really know the setting – just that they were walking through hospital grounds and out onto the street.

Once I had figured out all of the above, I sat back down, my laptop in front of me and my notepad open with all the important details. I had sketched a map of the hospital grounds and street outside, listed Ellen and Henry’s thoughts and motives and feelings about the situation, and got to writing.

It was easy again. It was easy because I knew exactly what I needed to write to portray Ellen’s nerves or Henry’s irritation. The setting helped break up the whole, ‘he said, she said, they turned a corner, he said, she said, they crossed a road,’ monotony. I could mention the way the yellow streetlights cast shadows across their faces, and that the sky was clear and dark, but any stars were drowned out by the obnoxious lights from the hospital.

I was worried when I lost that momentum halfway through chapter seven, that I would pack up all my notes and put them away and give up for another six months. But I think stepping back and figuring out what I needed to do in order to move forward was so much better than forcing myself to continue writing – writing something I knew was rubbish – and then get fed up with it.

So if you find yourself stuck – whether it be at chapter two or chapter twenty – all I can say is this: don’t force it. It will show in your writing. All it takes is ten minutes to figure out the setting and list your characters most pressing and relevant thoughts and feelings, and you have everything you need to make the scene come to life. That’s all writing is. Dialogue and setting.

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One Of My Obsessions

I first bought The Sims 3 when I was fourteen. It was a green disk, slightly see through, and it felt as though it took the better half of ten years to download onto my computer. I remember slotting the disk into place and the satisfying click and whir of my laptop as it welcomed The Sims back into my life.

I wasn’t able to play the game the day it was delivered.  My father, the twat, had hidden the thin parcel as soon as it was posted through the letter box. For some reason, he thought my mum had ordered it as a surprise for me.

He was skulking around in the kitchen later that afternoon. I was complaining to my mum about how The Sims hadn’t arrived, despite the email from Amazon telling me that it was already here.

‘Oh, it was you who ordered that?’ His words cut through me and I prayed to a God I didn’t think was real that my father, Neil, wasn’t being serious.

‘Yes. Why?’ My eyes followed him around the kitchen. He reached up onto the windowsill and pulled a thick envelope out from behind the moneyboxes and my mother’s dying orchid.

‘This came earlier but I thought mum had ordered it for you and it was a surprise.’ I jumped down from the kitchen table and snatched the package out of his hands, tearing at the brown paper until the front of the box was revealed.

‘Why would Saz have ordered something as a surprise for me, and used my name?’ Mum had disappeared into the conservatory but her head soon poked back around the side of the fridge at the mention of her name.

‘Did someone shout for me?’

Dad started to talk, but I cut him off, brandishing the game in my mum’s face excitedly.

‘Neil was trying to be clever but we both know that’s not his strong suit.’ Mum rolled her eyes.

‘Don’t call dad that. And don’t be mean to him. He just likes to pretend he knows what’s going on.’

We both laughed and my dad stood by the sink, an offended look on his face.

‘Why are you both picking on me? I just thought it would be a nice—’

But I had already said bye to them both and was running up the stairs to where my laptop sat on my bed.

 

However, that wasn’t my first experience with The Sims franchise. When my brother, Alex, and I had been younger the only gaming console we owned was a PS2. I don’t remember how but a worn copy of The Sims 2: Pets had fallen into our hands. Soon, we were playing it every weekend when we were at our parents’ house. During the week, my brother and I would stay at our grandma’s flat because our parents had to work. Dad worked away from home a lot of the time and mum was leaving the house at seven-thirty in the morning. The only thing our grandma had, other than a boxy TV, was a VHS player. No matter how often we begged, she wouldn’t let us bring our PS2 with us when we went to stay.

At the weekend, we would either create a woman with seven cats or a generic couple with too many Dalmatians. We didn’t really understand the game properly and it was only after we’d been playing it for a few months that we realised you could leave the home plot and go into town. Of course, in comparison to the modern Sims games, it didn’t exactly expand the gameplay but it opened up my eyes to the possibilities that could come.

 

In my first few years of High School, I would discover YouTube. Before I realised I could spend my pocket money on whatever I wanted, I got my Sims fix by watching other people play the game. One of my favourite series was by a girl whose username was ‘Quxxn’ (pronounced Queen) and she would play through all the different expansion packs and complete various Sim-related challenges. I stopped watching those kinds of videos when I bought the game but I would still check out the odd ‘Let’s Build’, videos in which people build houses and other structures in The Sims world. Curtis Paradis springs to mind and as of 03/04/17, he has over eight-hundred videos on his channel (not many in comparison to other people but that’s eight-hundred-ish pixel houses). A year or so ago I found out that Quxxn died while having weight loss surgery. It turned out that this girl who seemed so happy had used The Sims as an unhealthy way to escape reality.

This led me down a rabbit hole of sorts. I found myself reading article after article about The Sims. Most of them were shit. I skimmed them before going on to the next tab. There was one by Lev Grossman (2002) on the Time website that caught my eye.

The article begins by outlining the basic premise of the game, initially making it seem boring and dull. However, Grossman then states that the games “mundanity” is what draws its audience in. Rather than giving people a new world, it provides an alternate reality similar to our own. Grossman also talks about two women who were devoted to the game. One woman said that she had to “limit herself to two or three hours” in a day, something that I initially found unbelievable. But, I realised that while I didn’t play The Sims every single day, I would go through small bursts of obsession where I would spend an entire weekend in my room, playing and racking up the hours.

Another woman began playing The Sims after her husband died. She created him as a character in the game alongside her own Sim. In all honesty, that’s something I’ve never done. I’ve built my real-life house as somewhere for my Sims to live. I’ve used the names of people I know for the odd character here and there. But I’ve never created myself or my family members. I wanted to use The Sims as a way to escape my life. It was fake and that was one of the things I liked about it.

Despite writing the article in 2002, Grossman does predict the future of The Sims. He talks about ‘The Sims Online’ and how The Sims franchise in general was allowing people from all over the world to become interconnected, talking in real time. Instead of being alone in their rooms, people would be able to play alongside others.

In the concluding paragraph of his article, Grossman notes that ‘The Sims Online’ could be beneficial to America, “a virtual sandbox where we can play out our fantasies and confront our fears about what America might become.” Oddly relevant, not only in 2002 when George W. Bush was President, but in today’s world as well.

 

Two years after purchasing the game, the disk snapped in half and I was heartbroken. So, I downloaded Steam and bought the game again. However, it was repetitive, despite that being the point of the game, and I found myself wishing that there was more for The Sims to offer. That’s when I remembered the expansion packs.

It had been a shitty week and something I still do, to this day, is spend money I don’t really have to make myself feel better. I was in my room, the blind closed and my sheer pink curtains bathing the room in a rosy glow. I had made a sort of nest for myself on my bed and was sitting with my legs folded beneath me, the family laptop open and humming gently. In my mind, I cracked my knuckles and began typing like a spy from one of the many shit movies my dad made me watch. In reality, I clicked onto Steam and began reading reviews of all the expansion packs.

Generations was easily the one I veered towards most. It expanded the worlds of the toddlers, children and teenage Sims and, given my tendency to make big families, it was perfect. One of my favourite things about it is that children can have imaginary friends – and if one of your Sims is smart and has enough experience, they can create a potion that will turn the imaginary friend into a real person for you to control.

The second expansion pack I bought was Pets. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive. I watched the beginnings of several different series’ to see what the ‘Create a Pet’ process was like. This pack also came with a new town called Appaloosa Plains; queue cat shaped pools, animal-like plot names, and the occasional creature in your back garden: a racoon, a stray dog, a random horse or, if you’re lucky, a super-rare unicorn.

Finally, I purchased Seasons. This added in snow storms and heat waves, as well as weekly events centred around the respective season. In Winter, there’s an ice rink and if you click on the snowy ground, you can engage all your Sims in a snowball fight. In the Summer, there’s hot dog eating competitions and water balloon matches. To add some realism, The Sims would be susceptible to the highs and lows of the weather – allergies and the flu can plague your household and if your Sims get too hot or cold, their little lives can become endangered.

 

Ultimately, however, everyone always descends into the twisted tropes of the game. People would, and still do, kill off their Sims in different ways. A favourite is walling a Sim into a swimming pool and then laughing manically as they drown. In The Sims 4, if your Sim is old, he or she can die from woohooing too much (woohooing being the PG term for sex in the game). Of course, you can then control a house full of ghosts, or get one of your living Sims to flirt with Death, an actual character who comes to your home plot when someone dies, and have them woohoo under a cloud of pixels.

I, however, never did that. Once I invested in the game, I was always too busy creating the ‘perfect’ family and having them live out the suburban life I’ve always wanted but will probably never have.

 

My family, God bless them, never understood my obsession with The Sims. One day, I proved them all to be sexist when my brother confronted me about playing it so much.

I was sat in the kitchen (again) in my mother’s wheelchair (she didn’t need it anymore so it’s not like I’d kicked her out of it and she was laying helpless on the floor), when Alex came in and watched me design a new room of my Sims’ house.

‘What’s the actual point of that, Raciosaurous?’ Raciosaurous was the nickname he gave me when I told him I hated being called ‘Rach’.

‘There is no point to it. There doesn’t have to be.’ I wheeled back in the chair, running over his foot on purpose, and he took it as a challenge to try and make fun of me with our parents.

‘Mum!’ He shouted across the room to where Saz was standing by the oven, a tray of Viennese cookies in her hands. ‘Don’t you think it’s sad that Rachel plays The Sims all the time? It’s weird, isn’t it?’

Our mum agreed half-heartedly and my dad appeared suddenly in the kitchen door, like he always used to whenever my brother raised his voice.

‘What’s going on?’ He asked.

Alex took the opportunity to encourage our dad to mock me.

‘Don’t you think it’s sad that Rachel plays The Sims all the time? It’s not even real.’

Dad looked at me for a moment before grinning so widely that we could see the gums at the back of his mouth.

‘It is a bit childish, Racidoobi.’ Yet another vile nickname. ‘You should be doing something profound with your life and making a difference in the world.’

We all ignored Neil whenever he went into ‘preacher’ mode. You might think he’s cool and educated for using the word ‘profound’ but he’s from the Bella’ (a dodgy area of Wakefield filled with chavs and tracksuits) and likes to pretend he’s fancier than he really is. I took my brother’s silence as an opportunity to point out my family’s hypocrisy.

‘Alex plays on his PS3 from four till ten every day after school and you don’t have a problem with it. Plus, he’s shooting and killing things. I’m just making a nice little family and letting them do cute shit like go ice skating.’ No one had a response to that. My brother, the angsty dick, tried to defend himself but in the end, no one complained about my gaming habits again.

 

It’s only as I look back that I think about why The Sims meant so much to me. At that time in my life, I had this mentality about being alone forever. I think that The Sims gave me some semblance of control. I could create my ideal life and live it through the game. Whatever I wanted I could make. I could build the perfect house with the perfect family or I could start from scratch with a single Sim. There were endless possibilities and that provided endless hours of entertainment. 513 hours, according to my Steam account. Not to mention, the two years I spent playing the disk version.

Now, I play The Sims once every few months. It’s not as exciting to me as it once was but there’s something freeing about being in total control. I don’t know whether I’ll buy any more of The Sims games or just stick with the ones I have. A small part of me will always be drawn to the green crystal that first greeted me when I opened up that package all those years ago.

My Favourite Things on Netflix

Ah, Netflix. I love it. I really do. And I was binge watching some of my favourite things this past weekend when I thought, oh, this will make a good blog post. One of the things I’m really good at in life is making lists. Anyone who knows me well can attest to that fact. So I’ve decided to list my top 10 favourite things on Netflix.
DISCLAIMER – I live in the UK so the things on my list might not be available in other countries. Also, I’m including things that aren’t Netflix Originals but are available at the time of posting.

Continue reading My Favourite Things on Netflix

How To Keep Writing

One of my biggest problems as a writer is actually taking the time to sit down and write. Sometimes I’ll get a burst of inspiration and whack a few thousand words out – but those moments are few and far between. It’s not sustainable if I’m going to try and make a living as an author. I know that. So I’ve decided to list a few things that seem to help/encourage me to write. Firstly, because it might help someone else out there. And secondly – because it means I’m writing!

Continue reading How To Keep Writing

My Experience with Kindle Direct Publishing

So this past week I published my first ever short story on Kindle Direct Publishing (K.D.P) (and you can get it here). It sounds simple when I type it out like that but, for me, it was a big moment. I wrote the short story last year for a University module called Science Fiction and Fantasy and it was the first thing I’d actually written as a part of my degree that I was 100% in love with.

I decided to publish it on K.D.P on Saturday morning and by that evening, it was being reviewed for publication. It was painfully easy. However, I spent the next few days rushing to do things I should have already had finished. So that you don’t freak out like I did, I’ve decided to list the things I think you need to do/be doing before even thinking about publishing something on K.D.P.

Continue reading My Experience with Kindle Direct Publishing

The End of University

For me, and I assume many other people, University wasn’t how I expected it to be. Most of my assumptions about Uni life came from movies, TV shows and YouTube vlogs. All I can really say is that they set the bar way too high.

Continue reading The End of University