The Art of Procrastination

With a blog entitled “The Procrastination Pen” I suppose it is reasonable to expect that at some stage there would be something on procrastination.

To be honest the naming was something that came to light after several days of brain stretching. It was only fixed after I discovered that all my other great name ideas were already taken.

(This is fairly familiar, see my discoveries about the use of the term “Wreck of the Week”).

It was all going swimmingly until Amazon launched a product which is actually called a  “Procrastination Pen”. This consigns my little blog to low down in the Google search results.

Anyway enough of this – suffice to say that the title “Procrastination Pen” was in the search for a unique blog title rather than some manifesto of intent.

However it is not a title without aptness. Throughout my life I have struggled with procrastination. At times I would rather clean the toilet than embark on the task that I regard as the most important. During revision for the various exams I have undertaken in my life I have dusted, hoovered and tended the garden to avoid picking up a single book.

And so it was with great embrace that I greeted the book that is the subject of this post.

If like me you have symptoms of procrastination in your life I recommend that you buy this before any other book on the subject.

Procrastination 1

Bookfinder

My copy is now very precious to me.

John turns out to have been a lifelong procrastinator of the advanced order. This puts him in a uniquely sympathetic position to other sufferers. He is the most positive person I have encountered when it comes to the treatment of procrastination.

If you want a flavour for the author’s style then visit his website here.

He raises the idea of akrasia (apparently originally from Aristotle). This describes why people will do anything other than the thing they are supposed to be doing.

He proposes that procrastinators far from being inefficient wastrels actually get a great deal of work done. However they get that work done whilst avoiding some other task.

Perversely they may be seen to be very hard-working and efficient as a result.

The major outcome of which is that being a procrastinator is quite positive and nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of.

Although he is perhaps the first to propose the term “structured procrastination” to cover this behaviour the first to write about it apparently was Robert Benchley in the Chicago Tribune in 1930. The article “How to Get Things Done” is now the subject of a blog posting.

Structured Procrastination

The benefits of structured procrastination (as opposed I suppose to doing absolutely nothing) is that it is feasible to get procrastination to work in your favour. A great deal of work can be accomplished whilst avoiding the task you really do not want to engage with.

The issue is that mentally (or physically if we can bring ourselves to be that organised) we have a list of tasks which we must accomplish.

Habitually a procrastinator will have the most important task glaring him or her in the face. He or she is quite prepared to exercise his or her self in the performance of tasks lower down that list to avoid that most important task.

The wrong thing to do when you have this mindset is to address the task directly. Worse still is to attempt to minimise the distracting tasks to focus fully on the main one. If you succeed then the only way to avoid the main task is to do something which is not constructive – watch the television, cut your toenails, pick your nose and so on.

One approach is to try to find another yet more important task and to mentally (or physically if it helps) add this task to the top of the list. Now you will be spending all of your efforts to avoid that task. Your previous most important task is now second on the list and is likely to receive attention to avoid the new most important task.

Alternatively, if no likely task presents itself, promote one of the less important tasks to be the most important one.

This means you have to fool yourself that this task is more important. As John points out we fool ourselves all the time anyway in the pursuit of procrastination so we’re already experts at this.

Perfectionist Moi?

Procrastinators are fantasists, unable to complete the task perfectly but nonetheless imagining that they are able to do so.

Finding themselves unable to complete a task to this imagined standard of perfection means the task does not get done.

That is unless the task has a deadline, in which case as the deadline passes guilt kicks in. The procrastinator attains a mad scramble to complete the task. In the process he or she gives his or herself permission to do a less than perfect job.

John states that we would be better using a task triage in this situation. Decide which tasks you can forget altogether, which you can forget until later, and which to start work on.

In the process decide whether a half-arsed job is sufficient or if a perfect job really is needed.

Lists

Surely the bane of any procrastinator and the subject of way too much time-management reading I’ve performed over the years.

Procrastinators keep lists – either mentally or, for the more disciplined, physically.

The lists are pretty pointless. The only reason they are created is to get the buzz from crossing things off the list. Hence the list grows with items that did not need to be on the list simply for the feedback of all those ticks.

Where lists do come into their own is when the procrastinator is faced with a task that he or she cannot face. Something so daunting that nominating some other task as the most important will surely fail.

Here the task needs salami slicing. Each component of the task listed out so that the procrastinator can approach it piecemeal.

The safest time to make such a list is just before sleep – that way you’re less inclined to be distracted.

Music

Motivational music is well worth having.

Personally I think that you can’t go far wrong with this:

You will have your own preferences.

Distractions

These are bread and butter for the procrastinator, email and web surfing for example. Avoiding these is not realistic. Set something that will interrupt you. At least you will stop emailing/surfing the web (or alternative distraction of choice) and do some work before the sun sets.

Desktop

A lot of procrastinators work by spreading papers across the desk. Do not resist this if it is you.

Putting papers into filing cabinets is an almost certain way of never dealing with those papers again. If you are not bound by a clear desk policy feel free to leave the papers exactly where they are when you stop working. That way you can instantly pick up where you left off.

Non-Procrastinators

Procrastinators drive such people mad. Non-Procrastinators are useful to have around. They will insist that you work in a non-procrastinating way. This can be very motivational (if hard on any relationship that you have with them).

Obsessively productive people may choose to do the tasks for you. Make sure that you contribute equally if so.

Positives

A surprisingly large number of tasks don’t need doing at all. By not working on them you gain time that non-procrastinators lose.

Some tasks find better qualified people to work on them and they also disappear from your mental (or physical) to do list.

There are many ways to spend time and many opinions about the best way to spend time. Spending time daydreaming may in the long run be more productive than writing that essay.

Procrastinators may ultimately find better ways to enjoy life.

Unpleasant News

Whilst John is positive throughout about the impact of procrastinators he does reference some material which is likely to bite a bit harder.

Procrastination: Ten Things to Know. (Read this if you’re a procrastinator in a really upbeat mood or a non-procrastinator who needs validation).

For those determined to beat their procrastination into submission John recommends this book:

Procrastination 2

Bookfinder

However as John concludes, procrastination is not the problem. You will only attempt drastic action against procrastination if you are unhappy.

It would be far better to work on the unhappiness rather than the procrastination.

 

 

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Narrative Vs Dialogue

Two stories both on the same subject to show the effects of Narrative vs. Dialogue.

From a course I did so long ago now that I can’t remember the context.

They’re here purely for your enjoyment and with no other explanation.

I hope that you like them.

Narrative

Elizabeth was a fool Jane knew it. They hadn’t been friends for twenty years without the realisation that Elizabeth was a weak-headed, softhearted, naïve fool.

Didn’t she, the mother have the greater insight into the workings of her daughters?

There were the startling, the mediocre and the downright alarming. Rebecca, the eldest – she had always been the exceptional one. Always knowing what she wanted to do. She planned her wedding for the best weekend of the year, a marvellous dress, a fantastic husband.

Then there was Ruth. Jane could feel the anger like a tiny pricking sensation already starting, just thinking about her.

Ruth, yes – she’d warned her – with every one of the dropout wasters she’d hung around with (and taken to bed) she’d warned her.

Now she was pregnant,, of course she hadn’t taken the time to tell her own mother, oh no.

A hasty wedding in October – at a registry office, a rush job at minimal expense – well this guy Richard was hardly the high-flyer, not like Rebecca’s husband.

Ruth had made a bad choice and it was obvious why. It was just to spite her mother. They’d never seen eye to eye and now she had chosen the one thing that she knew would really hurt.

Jane took pride in her family – liked to think that she’d instilled in them some old-fashioned values.

Rebecca had never hung around town late at night picking up boys – and what boys. The latest one had a tongue piercing – and a dotted line tattooed across his neck with a small pair of scissors labelled “cut here”.

What kind of guy was he this Richard? She doubted very much that Ruth even knew him very well. She knew he had a motorbike and was the sort of guy that Jane would despise. Jane would never welcome him into the family.

How better to hurt her mother than to marry him? Well it worked; all the years of spite and angst could not equal what she was doing this time.

If only Ruth wasn’t such a stubborn, wilful girl, she wouldn’t be dragging the family down in this way. Jane wished, not for the first time that she could disown her.

It was bad enough that she’d found them “at it” in her own bathroom but then to go and marry him? It was too much.

So what was Elizabeth going on about? The loose-minded woman. No doubt, she saw Ruth as another hard-luck case like an abandoned puppy or something.

No, Ruth had a lot of learning left and she, Jane was not going to shield her from any of it.

Dialogue

“Isn’t it the most perfect day Jane” Elizabeth gushed, her brow furrowed in concern.

“It’s October Elizabeth, who ever heard of a wedding in October? I may as well look around for thermal underwear” Jane was at her most caustic today. “Now, Rebecca, Rebecca; there’s a girl with sense, a June wedding, very sensible”

“As I recall Jane, you moaned all day that it was too hot and you were suffering from sunburn,” said Elizabeth archly.

“Hmmph well at least I didn’t have to go there looking like an Eskimo – it’s so unattractive.”

Elizabeth sighed inwardly and tried again “The weather is unseasonably warm Jane. Anyway I’m told the registry office is centrally heated”

“Office, yes office, why not a church?”

Elizabeth decided on a change of tack “Did you see the dress though Jane? She will look beautiful”

“I didn’t want to see it, it’s not as though it’s a wedding dress or anything. There won’t be a train or walking up the aisle will there?”

“I guess as long as she’s happy though?” Elizabeth’s voice squeaked with the effort of maintaining diplomacy.

“Happy, happy, what kind of selfish attitude is that? I give it six months, that’s all, six months”

“Richard seems a very nice lad” Elizabeth was tiring of the fight.

“If you don’t count the tongue piercing and the tattoos of course.”

“They all have those now I think”

“Well he isn’t tolerant enough for Ruth that’s for sure. I don’t think he’s had half enough time to realize what a vicious little wildcat she can be”

“What makes you think that, Jane? What evidence do you have?” Elizabeth, by now beaten decided to go with the flow.

“I’ll tell you why – she’s been going round like some old slapper. Mike last year, Derek six months ago and now Richard. Is it any surprise that she’s pregnant?”

Elizabeth gasped, “That’s a vicious thing to say, you’ve no evidence at all for that statement”

“Oh, come on, don’t be so naïve, she’s been hanging around him like a bitch in heat” Jane snapped.

“How can you say that about your own daughter?”

“You just have to look at her for God’s sake, how many brides do you know actually put on weight for their wedding?”

“I think you’ll find the dress size is exactly the same now as when she ordered it Jane.” Elizabeth was sounding exasperated. “You can’t just treat your daughter in this way Jane, you can’t. It will come back to haunt you if you do.”

Jane glared at her stubbornly “I have five daughters, Elizabeth, five and have any been so awful to me as this one? I don’t think so.”

“Ruth is a lovely girl, Jane, surely you see that” said Elizabeth, tears by now gleaming in her soft brown eyes.

Jane’s gaze was grey and piercing “I tell you, for all the pain this one has brought me, I wish I only had four daughters.”
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Photo by Scott Webb from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/wood-sign-arrow-blur-137596/

Privacy – A How-To Guide

There can be few people alive now who have not heard about Edward Snowden. 

He is a marmite character hailed as a hero by some and a pariah requiring execution by others.

I realised that in my Gravatar profile I state: “Keen on privacy and IT Security. A volunteer counsellor. I use blogging to improve my writing.” There has been a few blog items on writing and the odd one related to counselling but except for the EXIF article precious little in support of privacy.

Snowden showed us that if you decide to put something on the Internet it is not private anymore. (No matter how much security you imagine protects it).

Security services have techniques that can read information, often when we believed that information was protected.

Information that you put on the Internet today, believing it to be secure, is exposed in a security breach tomorrow.

Some people believe that this is fair enough, if you decide to put a nude selfie online for example then on your head be it.

This article is not for them.

Still reading? Ok, well there are some basic steps that you can take which will protect you. Some more advanced steps you can take if you are very keen on privacy. There are also steps you should take if your life depends on privacy (which is sadly not unfamiliar to some activists in the world today).

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/improve-internet-privacy_n_6902622

https://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/11/12/snowden_guide_to_practical_privacy/

  • Mobile Phones Mobile Phones – transmit a great deal of information about you. they are used by shops to track your purchasing preferences. They still transmit information even when you have turned location services off.

    If you are in the group that really needs to protect your privacy faraday bags for phones do work.If you like your privacy but your life isn’t likely to be in danger over it – turn on location services only when you need it.

    Similarly turn off Bluetooth and wireless when they are not in use.Better still if you do not want to be tracked leave the phone at home.

  • Encrypt Encryption uses mathematics to render the information inaccessible to anyone other than the people you want to have access.However encryption does not solve all problems.There is some evidence that some encryption has been circumvented. .However encryption will defeat prying eyes in the majority of cases.

    You can encrypt your phone .You can encrypt the hard drive on your laptop.

    You can use encrypted file storage online .

  • Encrypted Apps – Use encrypted alternatives to text messages. The recommended system here is an app called Signal which is as easy to use as any text message system.
  • Unique Passwords – Make certain that every website you log into has a unique password.

    Breaches in passwords happen every day.

    A breach is when a company loses the usernames and passwords of its customers onto the Internet. Criminals then get hold of these details and attempt to log into as many websites as they can. It takes criminals minutes to do this it can take many years before a company is aware of the leak.

  • Password Managers – maintaining a different password for each login (for every website) is a discipline that is sometimes beyond the memory of the average individual. This means that you really must use a password manager.

    Password Managers store all your passwords in one place and you only need to remember the one password – the one to access the password manager.

    I use KeePass . It is a standalone password manager (in that it is not integrated with your browser).This reduces functionality a little but increases security a lot. (With all your passwords in one place you do want the solution to be secure).

  • Use two-factor authentication. Remember I said that passwords are leaked onto the internet every day? How do you stop a criminal logging in when you don’t know that your password is already out there?

    Make certain logging on to your account takes more than a password.

    A number of sites permit use of two-factor authentication. Usually this means that after you add your username and password you get a text on your mobile phone giving you a code that you also need to enter.This small amount of extra effort can have a big effect on your security.

  • Use a VPN service that cloaks your location.Every ISP has a list of addresses that they hand out to their clients. This means that when you browse the Internet others on the Internet can determine which ISP you use. In many cases this gives a good approximation of where you are accessing the Internet from.In addition every piece of browsing behaviour goes through a link provided by your ISP who has a log of your activity. The only way to disguise your activity from your ISP is to have a tool that uses an encrypted tunnel to hide what you’re are doing.

    This can be a VPN , use of ToR browser or using ToR browser over a VPN .

    A VPN creates a tunnel between you and a VPN Provider.

    The problem with this is that it moves the keeping track of your actions from your ISP to your VPN provider.

    You therefore need a VPN provider that undertakes not to track your actions.

    For the truly privacy conscious use ToR.

    https://lifehacker.com/what-is-tor-and-should-i-use-it-1527891029.

    ToR is not a panacea but it does make it much more difficult to trace any actions back to you. ToR is a technology that sends the messages you use to communicate on the Internet through a very convoluted route, making it very difficult to trace.

Of course it is far easier to keep something private if you do not share it in the first place. If you share something which would have consequences (if it became public) then perhaps sharing it is not wise. Don’t depend for example on Facebook privacy settings. It is known that people use Facebook to monitor and to trap the unwary.

Don’t put your holiday destination into Facebook until after you have returned.

It is really a bad idea to exchange nude photographs. Can you really be certain that the picture won’t turn up later on in a context which you might not like?

Many sites allow recovery of your account if you supply personal details about yourself. This means that they allow you access after you share with them a secret that they know about you. A favourite is Mother’s maiden name for example. If you forget your password – you supply your mother’s maiden name – you get to reset your password.

If that information (your mother’s maiden name) is on the Internet already (say on social media) it is no longer a secret. Criminals can use this information too.

Firstly be careful what you share. Secondly if you are asked for a secret that can be used to reset your account – lie. If your dog is called Fido and the recovery question is “pet’s name” use ”jambalaya” for example (don’t do that – it’s in the Internet now so people know it – make up your own version and keep it secret).

Once you have created a lie make sure you record it somewhere offline (say in the password manager) so if you need to recover the account you can remember what lie it was that you told them.

Make certain that you use the HTTPS version of a website (most sites have a HTTPS version now). The HTTPS-everywhere add-on can do this for you. HTTPS uses secure communication and hence is more secure to use than HTTP.

Adverts on the Internet have been the source of a great many attacks. Wherever possible use an ad-blocker. This also makes it harder for sites to track your behaviour and use it to bombard you with ads.

It is known that search engines like Google mine your information in order to sell it to advertising companies. One way to obviate this is to use an alternative search engine that does not log your behaviour. The best known of these is DuckDuckGo.

If you are one of the people whose life depends on your privacy then this article is not going to be cautious enough for you.

ToR is a good start. There are also guides as to how compartmentalise your life. There are guides about how to communicate with journalists. Encrypted email solutions exist and should be considered. Even operating systems designed to preserve security.

However it would be remiss of me to advise about these given my life has never been at risk because of a lack of privacy. You must gauge the level of risk and apply appropriate precautions.

For everyone else these few steps can make a big difference.

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The Writing Manifesto

This was something unique to one of the courses. I had never before come across the idea of having a writing manifesto. This is a declaration – public usually of your policy and aims. Presumably any such declaration is going to be a forceful lever motivating you in your desired direction in this case writing).

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/grammarly/write-manifesto_b_5575496.html.

It’s a good idea before writing a manifesto of your own to look at manifestos that others have written for example:

The Futurists Italy 1909

Manifesto of Futurism

  1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
  2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
  3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
  4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
  6. The poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
  7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
  8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
  10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
  11. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

The New Puritan Manifesto

  1. Primary storytellers, we are dedicated to the narrative form.
  2. We are prose writers and recognise that prose is the dominant form of expression. For this reason we shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms.
  3. While acknowledging the value of genre fiction, whether classical or modern, we will always move towards new openings, rupturing existing genre expectations.
  4. We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides.
  5. In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing.
  6. We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation.
  7. We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day. All products, The Introduction to The New Puritan Generation 15 places, artists and objects named are real.
  8. As faithful representations of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculation about the past or the future.
  9. We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality.
  10. Nevertheless, our aim is integrity of expression, above and beyond any commitment to form.

A Writer’s Manifesto

I guess my most important aim is to entertain.

First commandment of popular fiction of any kind is (as the lovely Claudia Carroll once said): Thou shalt not bore. Quite right too.

Second aim – to say something.

I know this sounds a little vague but sometimes I read books that don’t actually say anything. They just potter along, telling a nice story, but not really going anywhere. I think books should have something solid rooted at the heart of them – a theme if you like. Sometimes that theme doesn’t make itself fully known until you finish the 1st or 2nd or even the 3rd draft, but it’s often bubbling away under the surface of your words, slowly rising to the surface. For example in the first Amy Green book I wanted to tell readers it’s OK to be yourself. In fact it’s pretty darn cool to be yourself. It’s a theme that runs through all the Amy Green books.

My third aim is to write with passion and with confidence.

I’ve been writing for many years now and I’ve started to understand what both these things really mean and how important they are. Write without passion and you’re doomed. The confidence bit – that can be learned over time. But if you write with both passion and confidence – then you might just have a pretty good book on your hands.

Tips for Producing a Manifesto

  • What are your aims when you write?
  • What symbols reoccur in writing?
  • Prose vs poetry?
  • What do you want to glorify?
  • What do you want to eschew?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What do you declare?

The manifesto is a mechanism for recognising why author’s write.

A manifesto is a declaration of intent – a public declaration of policy and aims. It will help your focus as you need to know why it is that you are writing.

A manifesto states what is important to you in your writing. The best place for your manifesto is on the wall somewhere you can see it to remind you why you are writing. In the first place the manifesto is for you.

At the time the manifesto I came up with was this:

Phil’s Manifesto

I write to enjoy the process

I write to enjoy the output for myself

I write so that other people will read my writing and will get enjoyment from reading it

I want to make a living from writing

I am keen to write novels

I will write of things in psychology that interest me

I will write of people in conflict with themselves or with others

I will write of people who escape “real life”

I will write attacks on the mundane, the boring, the routine

I will write prose rather than poetry

I will glorify freedom and escape

I will write of people with complex thought patterns

I will write of people who are small and boring

I will write about anyone who is protesting

I will eschew tediousness and boredom

I will eschew too much sanity or saneness

I will eschew routine

I will eschew “real life”

I wish to be published – a real book with paper not an e-book or a blog

I believe in rebellion as a method for change

I believe in not sticking to the status quo

However all these years later I think I would make a few changes to this manifesto now. Perhaps if there is sufficient interest I will write a new one.

 

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Character

A good character is key to your book. If you have poor characters there is nothing to rescue the book.

These tips come from a writing course and I’m hopeful will be useful in improving your characters.

“Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.”

(The principles of screenwriting by Robert McKee) Bookfinder 

McKee

Character ‘Dimension’

A quote from p.p.  377-8 of the above book:

‘Dimension’  is the least understood concept in character…Some years ago a producer pitched me what he believed to be a ^three-dimensional’ protagonist in these terms:   ‘Jesse just got out of prison, but while he was in the slammer he boned up on finance and investment,  so he’s a expert on stocks, bonds, and securities. He can also break dance. He’s got a black belt in karate and plays a mean jazz saxophone.’ His Vesse’ was a flat as a desktop – a cluster of traits stuck on a name. Decorating a protagonist with quirks does not open his character and draw empathy. Rather, eccentricities may close him off and keep us at a distance.

A favourite academic tenet argues that, instead,  fine characters are marked by one dominant trait. Macbeth’s ambition is frequently cited. Overwhelming ambition, it’s claimed, makes Macbeth great. This theory is dead wrong.  If Macbeth were merely ambitious, there’d be no play. He’d simply defeat the English and rule Scotland. Macbeth is a brilliantly realized character because of the contradiction between his ambition on the one hand and his guilt on the other. From this profound inner contradiction springs his passion, his complexity, his poetry.

Dimension means contradiction:  either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent.  It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout the film, then in one scene have him kick a cat…

Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behaviour rivet the audience’s concentration. Therefore, the protagonist must be the most dimensional character in the cast to focus empathy on the star role.  If not, the Centre of Good decanters; the fictional universe flies apart; the audience loses balance.”

Plot and Character

A Plot led structure

If your story is about the robbing of the bank – you still need to care about why the character is robbing it.

Plot led structures are found in crime, thriller, horror and where there is suspense in action.

A Character led structure

Character led structures are found in romance, family drama and anywhere suspense is found in the character’s internal struggles.

You may not know what structure you’ve got until you’ve written your first draft. (Outlining in sufficient detail may help).

Plot Structure

  • Give your character a huge problem to resolve.
  • In the process throw loads of obstacles at them.
  • Your character needs to come up with a solution and redeem themselves.

What is your characters main dilemma?

What is the most exciting action line or crisis or major discovery?

Does this serve to highlight your character’s dilemma?

Is your character’s dilemma rooted in their personality?

Character

Normally there is one main protagonist.

This is the character whose story you are telling.

Aim to create a struggle within your character. Struggle reminds us that we are human.

Create a dimensional, real, character with their own wants and needs.

The outer goal is what they want recognisably to achieve.

The Inner goal is why they want or need to achieve those goals.

What is at stake if the character fails to achieve their goals?

What is stopping the character from reaching their goal?

The inner and outer goal should be linked. This is the basis for the reader’s engagement.

During the story the character “finds themselves” and this is the resolution.

Levels of conflict

Relationships – other characters, family, friends, antagonists

Societal – organisations, murder, rules

Nature – forces of nature, disaster,

Supernatural – monsters, God, aliens, ghosts

Character Building

There is a good questionnaire for this here https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/interviewing-your-characters/

  1. Where does your character live?
  2. Where is your character from?
  3. How old is your character?
  4. What is your character called?
  5. What does your character look like?
  6. What kind of childhood did he or she have?
  7. What does your character do for a living?
  8. How does your character deal with conflict and change?
  9. Who else is in your character’s life?
  10. What is your character’s goal or motivation in this story or scene?

You should really know your character.

This is a slow process building up from small details.

Gradually build up the intimacy between them and the reader.

Take time to allow them to get to know one another, time to care about what happens to the character, time to allow the reader to root for them to achieve their goal.

 

I was set a task of exploring a character and came up with the following which I hope you enjoy:

Story

Cigarettes, how he hated getting the cigarettes.  Here he was in the “sad bastards” ten items or less queue at Tesco’s.  Everything in the basket evidence of his vegetarian “live healthier” lifestyle and then Gary has to ask for cigarettes.

Of course he could never say no to him.  One inkling of that cheeky smile and the lights went on inside.  He felt like some school girl giggly and shy.

If only the eczema would give up he might try to know him a bit more – hand cream it was a euphemism really.  Try “whole body cream” and you would be closer to the truth. The red-scaly patches could rage up at any time and cause him wakeful nights; his flagging will-power all he had to stop the damn scratching.

It was easier to stay awake – a bit more coffee, a chunk of Bourneville and a late night weepy.  He hoped the checkout assistant wouldn’t stare again – the patches on his cheeks were bad today – if only he could send out for shopping.

Still it was his only activity outside his self-imposed prison.  Exercise was the rowing machine and work was always by email and by telephone.

Hopefully the Soya would be enough for the lactose intolerance.  The doctor had said IBS – then he had said that in his opinion IBS was “all in the mind”.  Well he’d try the Soya and avoid the bloody doctor.

How could anyone fancy him like this, especially Gary?  He tried not to think of it, best not to cry just as he was handing over his clubcard.

 

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Happy Seed – Worry Seed

I’ve used this technique myself with clients. It is a good creative technique to use with people who worry excessively or are anxious. Sometimes it is good to use techniques other than talking (and listening) in the room. Visual techniques are helpful in that they display to the client where their current thinking style/behaviour is taking them. It also can help them to clearly see changes that they need to make.

Everyone in the world has two seeds. There is a happy seed and a worry seed. You can do what you like with either seed – there is no instruction book. However the way you behave towards these two seeds is not without consequences.

This exercise is to show what happens when you pay attention to one or other seed.

Draw a happy seed and a worry seed at the bottom of a large piece of paper.

Happy Seed 1

The client can pay attention to either seed. They must first nominate one as the happy seed and one as the worry seed. (Draw a label clearly at the base of the paper so that there is no doubt which one is which).

They can pay attention to either seed. Each seed needs feeding and watering so that it can grow.

If the client is prone to worry it is usually easier for them to pay attention to the worry seed. If a worry comes to mind have them draw a shoot from the worry seed. Have them attach a leaf to this shoot labelled with that worry.

Happy Seed 2

At this stage the worry seed is developing into a plant. The happy seed is still just a seed. The client has free rein to add shoots to either seed. Have them add more shoots with whatever comes to mind.

Their predominant thinking style will rise to the surface. Someone who worries draws more worries.

Happy Seed 3

Dependent upon how much the client has to bring up it might be that you will need a very large piece of paper for this. (Plain wallpaper for example is good).

As you watch what the client is doing you can see that they have a tendency to water and feed one particular plant dependent upon their thinking style.

Happy Seed 4

This can continue for as long as you have time designated to this. However a definite pattern will have emerged.

Happy Seed 5

Eventually the client will run out of things to add – or will have added as much as they can within the time you allotted for this activity. There will usually be an asymmetry between the two plants:

Happy Seed 6

At which point you can point out to them that in life there is only one pot of time. They can pay attention to anything that they like but only one thing at a time. If they pay attention to the worry seed – they care for it, water it and it will start to grow.

A first worry leaf develops. With further attention to the worry seed another leaf pops up. If they keep caring for the worry seed in time a tree of worries will fill the page.

Their life will be full of worries and there will be no space left for happy.

They can’t care for the worry seed and at the same time pay attention to the happy seed. With no attention to the happy seed they concentrate all their energy on worry.

The worry tree becomes so huge that it is overwhelming. By comparison the stunted happy tree is undeveloped. In fact the happy tree is completely overshadowed by the worry tree and is not going to grow properly.

Get them then to consider how life would be different if they spent at least some time on the happy seed.

Better still if they watered and cared for the happy seed at the expense of the worry seed. How much different would life be then.

The intention is for them to seek out the parts of their lives that are happy and to minimise the time they spend worrying.

Thanks to my counsellor Rachel http://www.elyhypnotherapy.com/ for suggesting this technique.

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Book Planning Pt. 2

I am quite taken with plans on the theme of hell and this is one of those.

Sadly the plot questions and other aspects highlighted in the last post have been lost such that I just have the beginnings of a plan.

I still find myself quite fascinated by this idea so perhaps at one stage I’ll evolve it out and see what happens with it.

In the meantime I hope that you enjoy it.

This follows on from the first entry on book planning https://magic-phil.co.uk/2018/02/08/book-planning/

It turns out that I have further book plans which were prepared (presumably with the aim of expanding them into books) and which got no further.

Start of the Plot

James is an ordinary auditor. He likes to be well turned out; takes his time in Marks and Spencer; likes suits for the fuller figured man, even though he might make a waif look over-fed. James likes to spend time in Clarks examining shoes. These are always size 12 (even though he might be considered to be an 11), wide fitting, and lacking any high shine. James selects his ties from John Lewis and always opts for something muted in a diamond pattern or occasionally a pale stripe.

James is diligent in his work, each day carefully noting the time that he has taken and striving the very next day to better his performance. He ticks off each stage in the audit that he has completed and reports his progress weekly to a demotivated boss in a tired and dusty office.

He departs each evening on the 06.35pm bus and sits an exact 3 seats from the rear on the right hand side. In 25 years no one has yet felt the need to sit near to him. He scans the headlines of the day’s Guardian newspaper in silence before alighting 20 minutes’ walk from his uPVC front door.

James in fact is perennially dull. From his mousey-brown hair, the washed out ash-coloured eyes to the greying pallor of his skin there is nothing remarkable about him.

He arrives home each night at an unremarkable 7.07 pm. He takes out the tin of whiskers, today the tuna; tomorrow the chicken. He strokes the cat a regulation 5 times before turning to the freezer for something in the Tesco-finest range.

James turns to the BBC and watches the weather before turning in each evening at 9.30pm without variance. He reads a chapter of his book on audit and governance – the latest from the institute before extinguishing the light.

People like James; he is invisible. He listens carefully to what they have to say, nods appreciatively in the moments where it is expected and then passes on. Whilst they like James, they do not remember him. James in fact has no friends, no companions and no one has seen the inside of his house since he took up residence 25 years ago.

People who James audits find themselves confessing all the aspects of their working lives they should conceal from auditors. They tell him where the frauds are committed, who isn’t monitoring their budgets, where the money is wasted. In fact James is very effective at his job.

There is no sign at all in fact that James is a demon.

Of course James is completely unaware of this. He is unaware that 25 years ago he emerged into the world fully-formed, already moulded into the perfect auditor. He received a house at an impossible price from a distracted estate agent. He walked into a job at the local bank without interview, job description or Curriculum Vitae. James is as ignorant as his down beaten manager.

James in fact is not a demon that one would wish to have conduct audits, travel on the bus with one, or shop in one’s store for tins of Whiskas.

If his true self were to be revealed it is unlikely that the lady at number 22 would talk to James about the weather, smile in a distracted way or return inside (forgetting completely that she has ever spoken to anyone).

It is likely in fact that the lady at number 22 would be screaming in rank hysteria. Thankfully for her briefly as the experience would be almost instantaneously fatal.

James in fact is a career demon, member of the high council, noted for his abilities in the infliction of pain and the manipulation of terror.

In any other circumstance James would be wandering the corridors of horror. He would monitor the efforts of minor demons to make the suffering of the damned more intolerable. He would administer random acts of cruelty just to keep his hand in.

It is in fact fortunate that when walking out of hell 25 years previously James managed to excise all memories of his former existence. Fortunate for everyone else that is.

Sadly, today James will not be catching the 7.24 and purchasing the Guardian from a kiosk on his way to work. The lady in Accounts, who had revealed that the budget for Christmas entertainment was completely unmonitored, need not fear the arrival of a report from James pointing out her error.

It was easy, too easy in fact, Moloch had no need of sleep and wandering the flame lashed world he had plenty of distractions. There was always new tortures to devise, new accounts to be kept, level of suffering expressed, depth of despair that sort of thing. Moloch of course rarely sullied his hands with those details now. He had been in the business so many millennia that he had only to think a request and leagues of minor demons would hurry to do his bidding. Encouraged no doubt by memories of what happened when they were less willing.

Moloch in fact was bored; it had been 50 centuries at least since he had really enjoyed what he was doing. This morning for instance he had a man repeatedly impaled with red hot pokers. There was the screaming of course, the pointless pleading, the whimpering, but what was it all for? He began to wonder what was the meaning of it all, what was the purpose in his existence?

If tomorrow he simply had to cause the suffering of another few million lost souls, why was he even here? Surely there were demons equally qualified, perhaps better qualified to do the same thing. Moloch sighed.

Moloch had thought often in the last few hundred years of his lack of mortality, often he had wished that it was possible to die. It wasn’t the constant pain; Satan knows that he had grown used to that, many centuries ago. No amount of extra torture could really make things any worse for him. No, Moloch had developed that most self-defeating of needs, unique so far in the demon race. The need for a purpose in his existence; Moloch wanted to know why he was here; he wanted it all to mean something.

The need had been growing in him. Growing like the cancers that he sometimes grew on the damned for the amusement of it – what little amusement could be had nowadays.

It had started as a small seed of discontent; a feeling that perhaps he was not as good at the job as previously he had believed himself to be. Each day brought many thousands to him, several really adept at the task. Encouraged by pain it was often moments before the mild started to behave like psychopaths with a penchant for mutilation.

Moloch was not immune. He had gained the job himself by demonstrating the inefficacy of his predecessor.  His predecessor was now welded to the walls using his own flesh.

In fact the discontent brought him closer each day towards an ever more intolerable eternity. As the years progressed, it was apparent to Moloch that he could not bring himself to care.

He began to experiment with doing less, with being absent more. At intervals he took to daydreaming and not about new methods to terrorise the inmates.

The vast libraries of hell were accessible to him. He began to research items that were not in his job description and that he couldn’t have accounted for if anyone could be bothered to check

Moloch saw to it that self-monitoring regimes were instituted. Failure to perform was rewarded with disproportionate acts of cruelty. These regimes ran completely without his interference. In fact, he realised that if the methods were available he could absent himself entirely for lengthy periods and no one would regard it as strange.

During his researches he began to read of the human act of suicide. It was something he had a passing familiarity with already. Several of the inmates had arrived via that route. Amongst their pleas for mercy would bemoan the act that brought them there, sometimes in great detail.

Eventually Moloch began to seek out those who had chosen this way of ending their life. He encouraged them in some quite inventive ways (even though he said so himself) to relate what had happened, when and why.

Nine centuries passed in which Moloch could be said to have taken an interest in anything but his work. He occasionally looked in to ensure that the full meaning of hell was being explained to those in his care, but these visits grew less and less common.

Eventually Moloch came across Michael; Michael had been a suicide, a soul with the misfortune to come into contact with Moloch. When Moloch explained to him the nature of his researches Michael was very willing to explain his whole life story in a very detailed and helpful manner. He would do this often in high screams or deep despairing sobs. These were the communications that Moloch was used to and they suited him.

Michael it appeared had been an auditor, a man with no friends and a deeply obsessive personality. Moloch liked that. Indeed as he discovered the nature of Michael’s former life he determined that he liked it a great deal. Michael it appeared was empowered to make everyone’s life miserable. He had no friends and was disregarded by the world. Michael lived alone with a small carnivore. This carnivore liked to torture even smaller mammals despite Michael’s best efforts to persuade it otherwise. Moloch liked that too.

Michael had become disenchanted with an auditor’s life. He failed to see any point in his existence, in which he was basically invisible, in which no one remembered to send him a Christmas card. No one could remember his name.

For the first time in his existence Moloch began to draw comparisons with his own experience. The years spent engaged in pointless activity, the lack of any options, the inability to escape. All of these rang true for him, Moloch was so enraptured with the tale he almost forgot to drop Michael into a vat of boiling oil.

What distracted him the most though were the things he could not understand, despite endless repetition. Moloch had been forced to skin him – purely for the sake of form of course. Michael had maintained that just prior to the end he had not cared if he lived or died. Moloch did not understand this. One morning Michael had slipped down to the platform. Instead of catching the 5.38 to Kings Cross had instead jumped in front of the express train destined for Edinburgh.

Moloch had heard many million such tales and dismissed them as the normal hubbub of souls desperate for surcease. But this time, intrigued, he began to wonder if it could be true. How could anything vested with life not care about that life? Look what happened when you didn’t care – Moloch came to visit – often.

Moloch finally had what for him was a defining epiphany. If a human could arrive in hell merely as a result of not caring whether he existed – maybe the gateway to hell could be opened in exactly that way. Of the millions of souls he had encountered not one had not cared. In fact by the time he had spent a short time with them they cared a great deal. Normally they cared about the agony they were in, how wretched they felt, about the inability to escape. In fact he could not remember one soul that simply did not care.

Then there was the act, the symbolic severing of the soul from that which they no longer cared about. For Michael it had been straightforward, any number of lethal devices lurking about on earth. Moloch reasoned that if a train hadn’t been available a large truck or even a suitably high building would no doubt suffice. People of Earth really had nothing to complain about in terms of the methods available for symbolically calling it a day.

Of course calling it a day simply caused them to change plane of existence, today an unregarded auditor tomorrow a soul in torment. Simple translocation, not much in that, the challenge was to cause it to happen in the opposite direction.

Moloch sat a long time meditating over that, deliberating and calculating, as the centuries passed he finally reasoned that he would never be able to abandon all caring, no matter how purposeless the existing had become. However there was nothing to prevent him using the experiences of Michael to his advantage.

As for the thing that would be the act, the symbolic act to end his existence in this realm? Moloch had come to that as well. To attempt to depart the gates of Hell was the daemonic version of suicide. The beings that people that pathway would render him into innumerable fragments. They would populate the passageways with his suffering. No demon had ever ventured that way and not one would ever consider it.

Moloch was ready; a simple matter to collect Michael from where he had hung him on a meat hook for safe keeping. Using a technique learned in the long years of study in the library he merged the two of them into one. Critically for Moloch, one in which the memories of the two beings remained.

Travelling to the gates would not be straightforward. The governance of Hell was absolute. No demon could wander far from his designated paths, to stray into other sectors of hell, to attract attention, this was unwise. Moloch was aided in that now he had the appearance of a soul in torment. It would be straightforward to wander if he was prepared for the many innovative tortures that they would have ready for such a soul.

Many centuries elapsed, many tortures were meted out, but Moloch had been through so many it was hard not to yawn. It intervals it became hard to show an interest. At these intervals he let Michael surface and rode along on his more expressive approach to suffering.

Finally Moloch could see the dark passages leading down to the gates and the shadowy figures that peopled them. This was it – the ‘Suicide’ he had planned. Finally he delved into the depths of Michael’s mind and pulled to the foremost the experiences of his last day. The utter hopelessness of it, the pain, the need to escape, the worthlessness the conviction that existence was not worthwhile. At the same time he wandered straight towards the largest and most brutal of the guardians of the gates.

The guardian turned, grasped him, and tore him apart in a shattering agony. Impressive in that despite the many agonies he had suffered this still got his attention. A being emerged from the fragments; striding unseen, unregarded from the steaming maw of hell.

It had worked! James now emerged into the damp and misty autumnal dawn and caught the 07.24 for his new job at Michael’s old bank. Sadly for Moloch the translocation was not complete. The shattered fragments still held nearly all his memories (and most of those of Michael). He was alive in a new plane of existence but unaware of what he had done. For a short time, this was what saved him. That lack of awareness, that empty-headedness meant that the demons that walk the earth observing, manipulating, destroying could not determine that there was anything remarkable about him. Occasionally something remarkable would happen. James could cause incidents to happen (such as house available for a month’s salary) which should not be possible. But these incidents barely rose above the normal criminal activity of the average day.

In fact James briefly had the life which he had hoped for, mundane, unimportant, with sufficient malice to make it just interesting.

That was until Wednesday…

As you can see there is just the start of the plot so far. If any of these plot ideas cause people to think they might want to read more let me know and I might put some more work into them.

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