Procrastinator's Pantoum

Playing catch-up isn't fun
Time is fleeting, all too short
Chasing deadlines at a run
Often glimpsed, never caught.

Time is fleeting, all too short
Moments of a brief respite
Often glimpsed, never caught
Rushing onwards out of sight

Moments of a brief respite
[[Write a line here to repeat]]
Rushing onwards out of sight
[[Need to make this verse complete]]

[[Write a line here to repeat]]
Chasing deadlines at a run
[[Need to make this verse complete]]
Playing catch-up isn't fun.

Kell Willsen

Formal Poetry – Why Bother?

Although I have always had at least a passing interest in poetry, I can point to one book that took me from mild curiosity to keen student. That book is The Ode Less Travelled, by Stephen Fry. Be warned, his language in places can get a bit... well, let's just say I applied judicious amounts of Tippex before lending my copy to a friend's daughter. However, DIY expurgation aside, it really is a brilliant book. For why? It teaches you how to write poetry.

But surely poetry is something that can't be taught? It must be honest and free, not taught by numbers like learning how to wire a plug! Well, to quote from the book's own introduction:

"Talent is inborn, technique is learned."

I'm still working through this book, with its many helpful exercises and examples, but I have already learned one important lesson: Before you can break the rules, you have to know them. The rules of form aren't the be-all and end-all of poetry, but they do matter.

As Pascal said: "It is superstition to put one's hope in formalities, but it is pride to be unwilling to submit to them." This is as true in poetry as in anything else: music, art, science, or even just everyday good manners. You are perfectly at liberty to do your own thing, but you ought to know what that is, not just blunder around in the dark.

Once you understand the various forms and techniques at your disposal, you can use them in combination to create something new. You can invert or alter the forms, discard certain rules and even add your own - doing what has been done for thousands of years by poets in every part of the world, in every language. You might rediscover a form that has fallen out of fashion, or re-invent a tired, old pattern.

If there's one thing I'd like people to take from my posts this month, it is that poetry is worth studying. It's not elitist, and it won't strangle your self-expression. There are many resources out there, so why not look around for a book or website that appeals to you. It might be Shadow Poetry, or Young Writers or the Poetry Foundation, or even Wikipedia (hey, it's a place to start).

I'd like to close with another quote from "The Ode Less Travelled", a slightly longer one this time. After discussing the emotional impact of various types of meter, Fry writes:

"These effects are not accidental, the substitutions do not come about by chance or through some carefree inability to adhere to the form and hoping for the best. They (the poets discussed in this chapter) studied meter and form constantly... They would no more be unaware of what they were doing than Rubens could be unaware of what he was doing when he added an impasto dot of white to give shine to an eye, or than Beethoven could be unaware of what happened when he diminished a seventh or syncopated a beat. The freedom and ease with which a master can do these things belies immense skill derived from practice."

Even the most radical, abstract and avant-garde artists started out as diligent students of the established rules, and put in their years of "apprenticeship" on the way to becoming masters. It's a hard road, but a necessary one - and it really is worth it in the end.

TL;DR? Try this:


Such a lengthy editorial
Means a short verse of the day.
If you skipped the long tutorial
Let me sum it up this way:

Learn the rules before you break them,
Art is made by choice, not chance,
Dig up old forms once forsaken,
Then you can turn all the established meters on their heads or inside out and do whatever
you want so long as you do it because you choose to and not because you don't know
any better. Bon chance!

– Kell Willsen

Uncomfortably Relatable

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It’s great when we see ourselves in stories, isn’t it? And I don’t just mean characters who match our appearance, neurotype, or other group identity, I mean when characters do or say or think things that make us go, “Wow, that’s me!” Or when the narrative gives the reason for what the character does and it could have been written about you.

Yes, it’s great — usually. We love to find heroic, funny, clever characters to be relatable. We even like having flaws in common with them. But what happens when we relate to the “wrong” character?

This happened to me when I read the first “Red Dwarf” novelisation, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. The TV series showed what the characters said and did, but the beauty of a novel is that it allows the author to show characters’ thoughts as well. On top of that, novels can easily incorporate backstory elements; so we got to see the past experiences of the characters instead of just hearing about them in bits of dialogue. 

Here’s a passage that I found to be painfully relatable: 

He found the process of revising so gruellingly unpleasant, so galling, so noxious that, like most people faced with task they find hateful, he devised more and more elaborate ways of not doing it in a ‘doing it’ kind of way.

In fact, it was now possible for him to revise solidly for three months and not learn anything at all.

The first week of study, he would always devote to the construction of a revision timetable. [...] Every hour of every day was subdivided into different study periods, each labelled in his lovely, tiny copperplate hand; then painted over in watercolours, a different colour for each subject, the colours gradually becoming bolder and more urgent shades as the exam time approached. The effect was as if a myriad tiny rainbow had splintered and sprinkled across the poster-sized sheet of creamwove card.

The only problem was this: because the timetables often took seven or eight weeks, and sometimes more, to complete, by the time he’d finished them the exam was almost on him. He’d then have to cram three months of revision into a single week. Gripped by an almost deranging panic, he’d then decide to sacrifice the first two days of that final week to the making of another timetable. This time for someone who had to pack three months of revision into five days. 

[A few anxiety-ridden days later, filled with everything except revision…]

...the final day’s revision before his exam.

Waking at four-thirty in the morning, after exercising, showering and breakfasting, he would sit down to prepare a final, final revision timetable, which would condense three months of revision into twelve short hours. This done, he would give up and go back to bed.

Which was why he failed exams.

Now, as the narration says, most people do this kind of “busy work” to avoid hated tasks. So this character’s pretty relatable, isn’t he? Great!

Wait, who is he again? 

It’s Rimmer.

Yes, we just related to Arnold J. Rimmer. Are you horrified yet? If not, I’m going to assume it’s because you don’t know who he is. Trust me, you do not want to have anything in common with this character. Only you might just have discovered — like I did — that you do, actually, share a flaw with him.

Now what?

Well, one result is that I developed a degree of empathy for this character. Hats off to Grant & Naylor, they created a joke character and then humanised him. And, if there’s a human side to Rimmer of all people, then maybe there’s a human side to the real-life cringe characters out there, even the really annoying ones. 

Well, maybe.

The other result is that whenever I catch myself procrastinating by making increasing detailed plans, I can tell myself that I’m being like Rimmer and I need to stop. 


Because, there might be a human side to Rimmer, but he’s still Rimmer


SpecFic on the Spectrum

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One of the (many) misconceptions that seem to exist around neurodivergent brains is that autistic people don’t like fiction. Something about a fondness for accuracy and a desire to research things deeply seems to come across to neurotypical brains as “having no imagination”, or “being obsessed with facts”. And, to a neurotypical mind, these traits are incompatible with enjoying fiction.

Now, I can only speak for myself (obviously) but I love stories. I read them, I watch them, I listen to them, I play them — I even write them! Stories, when well-constructed, make sense. And nowhere is this more evident than is the realm of Speculative Fiction, or SpecFic. 

Stories set in the real world don’t bother to explain things that the authors see as obvious. If you read a contemporary drama, you are expected to “just know” a number of things, and the author only explains when they differ from the expected norm — which can provide a fascinating glimpse into the author’s definition of “normal”, by the way.

Speculative fiction doesn’t have that luxury. A writer of SpecFic has to do their own world-building, and the reader is not expected to “just know” any of it. Good SpecFic writers reveal their worlds through the words and actions of the characters; bad writers deliver pages of pointless info dumping. But either way, the writers explain their world.

Likewise, the character actions are meant to flow in a logical way, and the dialogue is stylised so as to strip out most of the small talk. Good quality fiction relates to the real world but with a much better signal-to-noise ratio. Also better plotlines, but I digress. 

Anyway, my point isn’t to claim that all neurodivergent people love SpecFic, or even that fiction is somehow “better” than non-fiction. My point is that I am autistic, and I enjoy SpecFic, and therefore the “fact” that all autistic people prefer non-fiction is demonstrably false. 

Lesson: It’s pretty pointless to try to predict people’s preferences predicated on only one parameter.

Addendum: Alliteration is awesome. 😁


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Coming back from the slumping middle, expect backdated updates over the next few days.

The uphill battle that is catching up is rather discouraging, and it's tempting to give up at this point. I'll have to work at double speed to finish on time, and that seems a pretty big ask considering how slowly I've been going so far. Perhaps it's time to chalk this up as one big Bad Idea and call it a day? 

It's at times like this that I need to remember the heroic and tragic "plot embryo" structures. When I first learned about these two character arc templates, I was surprised to realise that they are almost identical at the start. 

Both the heroic and the tragic protagonist discover a need, set a goal, and take steps to achieve it. Both meet with and overcome various obstacles, until they hit their lowest point. Then the paths diverge.

The tragic protagonist becomes overwhelmed by despair, and their story ends. Often in death, either of the character or of their dreams. There's no way back from this, and the character is lost. The heroic protagonist also faces despair, but is able to resist it and move on to the rest of their story. 

Although the tragedy is usually foreshadowed, there is often a moment where the tragic protagonist could have turned the story around. The Valjean/Javert contrast, where they both have their lives turned upside down by a single act of kindness -- and the different reactions they have to that moment. One to hope, a new life, and a sense of purpose; the other to despair and death. 

The tragic and heroic are so closely intertwined that we usually can't tell which path we're on until we look back. In this moment, I choose to see how much work lies ahead of me, accept that I haven't made the best choices with respect to my stated goals, and then keep going

Outlines: Love 'Em or Hate 'Em?

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I’ve been a committed planner ever since I started to write. Words have always felt too slow, even while I loved them, so I had to tell my stories in big, sweeping strokes first, just to capture it before it could get away. This may be an AuDHD thing, but no-one knew that at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to tell people my awesome story now, and not after ten minutes’ set-up — but without that set-up the story made no sense. So...

So my oral stories were pretty much impossible for anyone to understand, and they’d slip through my fingers before I could get a proper hold on them. There was a sort of transporter-portal thing, and a flooded castle (mansion?) and a feud and a pending disaster and...

And then I began to write.

Suddenly I could get the bones down on paper and fill in the gaps later. The core ideas were captured, and the story could grow from this seed (to thoroughly mix my metaphors) into something like the magnificent whole I had glimpsed when the story first arrived in my head.

I fell in love with outlining. And while I understand people who feel that an outline restricts their creativity, I know that for me an outline is more like a climbing frame. It gives me a solid structure on which to build, and lets me go higher and further than I could on open ground. 

A recent conversation with a friend provided another reason I might be attracted to outlines. We were talking about memory, and how odd it can be. My friend said that when she thinks back on her day, she can remember the “bullet points” — where she went, what tasks she did, and so on; but she struggles to remember the “in between” moments: how she got from A to B, brief conversations between important tasks, etc. When she said that, I realised that my memory works in a similar way. For example, I can remember that conversation, but not what was said before or after.

In other words, when I write an outline for a story I’m thinking about it in the same way that I process real-life events. I think in bullet points, and fill in the details later. And because different brains work in different ways, other people probably have different ways of processing memories. 

When I read novels that included diary entries, I used to feel that the novelist was using a bit — or a lot — of poetic license with how people write real diaries. Surely there’s no dialogue, no detailed descriptions, no smooth flow of events in chronological order in a real diary? It’s more likely to be a collection of isolated incidents, or a simple list of events, or a rant about the weather. 

Well, that’s what my diaries were like. 

But perhaps there really are people who can sit down and write a scene — invented or remembered — as a coherent narrative right out of the gate. Who don’t need to jump right to the most important part and then go back and do the build-up afterwards. There might be people who can type at the speed of thought, and get their stories down entire and complete in one go. 

But I am not one of those people, and so I will go right on using outlines. And telling long, rambling stories that branch off and circle around, and lose themselves in…

[This post was written without the benefit of an outline.]

NaNoWriMo: Y/N?

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National Novel Writing Month has been a thing since 1999, growing organically from a small group of friends in one town to a huge non-profit spanning the globe. The whole story can be found here, and the official website can tell you anything you want to know about what it is and how to get involved. I'm here to discuss why I join the challenge most years, and why I sometimes don't.

It's a Challenge, Not a Contest

One of the things I like best about NaNoWriMo is that it encourages writers to see each other as companions, not competitors. It doesn't matter how many people reach their target, or how quickly they do it. The only metric of success is: "Did I reach my goal?" Not being the fastest, or the furthest, or the most published, or the more popular. It's a personal challenge that you work on in company with other writers.

This is an important point for writers, especially fiction writers, to take on board: We're not competing with other writers in our genres.  If someone enjoys my book, and I enjoy your book, then I'm going to send my readers to you and (I hope) vice-versa. The reader gets more to enjoy, and the writers get to grow and share their audience. NaNoWriMo is a good way of promoting that mindset, and reminding ourselves that we are storytellers first and foremost.

It's Still a Numbers Game, Though

As I'll be discussing in a couple of days, raw numbers aren't always the best way to measure success. I'm still discovering the needs of my AuDHD brain, but one possibility is that numbered goals can be a source of stress rather than motivation. Last November I didn't get anywhere near my 50k goal, but I did manage to write something every day for 30 days straight. And that felt like a real achievement!

I normally resist "streak" thinking, because it only takes one bad day to ruin months of work. So a workable metric for me is to set myself a target percentage, rather than counting unbroken streaks. Missing three days in a month is a 90% success rate. Missing 36 days across a year is a better than 90% success rate, even though that's more than five weeks' worth of missed days.

 Most productivity and self-study guides suggest that anything above 80% is a pass, and so that's my target. Anything over that 80% is a bonus, not the new baseline standard. 

So: NaNo yes or NaNo no? It depends entirely on how you like to write, and what you find motivating. Sometimes I'm in a "numbers" mood, and take pleasure in charting my progress. Other times, I simply get frustrated and blocked over how far behind I am. When I'm in that kind of headspace, I need to find a different motivator. But I do recommend checking it out. The community forums are amazing, and the pep talks are available in the archives. Take a look, use what you can, and don't force yourself into anything that isn't a good fit.

Actually, that's a pretty good rule for most advice now that I come to think about it.