Friday, 31 October 2014

Show don't tell

Apparently I am the last wannabe writer on the planet to hear about the maxim "show don't tell". 
It's a real gem. Without it my writing would slip into yawn worthy narrative. 

So, rather than jawing on about what it is lets demonstrate - show rather than tell. 
For example, instead of saying Neil was really tall we can write "Neil folded himself into the drivers seat of his 3 series".

Take this longer albeit simple example. 

   As he opened the barn door he heard a noise coming from inside. Suddenly filled with fear he stood rooted on the spot. Was that Sam or the gunman inside the barn? As he stood there wondering if he should turn and run a chicken rushed out passed him 

We are told he is scared and of what. The fear is resolved because it was just a chicken. 

Instead of simply rewording the passage we need to treat it as a scene. We could rewrite it as follows. 

   The barn door finally yielded to the force of his shoulder. The eerie screech of rusted hinges sending shivers down his spine. 
   Eyes searching the gloomy interior he suddenly took a step back, "Sam, it that you?"
No reply. His ears strained to pick up the sound of movement. Someone is in here he thought, I definitely heard a noise. Nothing but the sound of his heart as it beat like a drum against his ribs. 
   His mind raced. It can't be Sam he reasoned. His mouth suddenly dry he realised the only other person around could at that very second be pointing a gun at him. 
   The realisation turned his feet to lead and any thought of escape thwarted.  
  A flurry of feathers at his feet..... Etc. 

Anyway, that's the general idea. Get the reader to sense - hear, see, smell feel - the story. 

One more big sleep and I am still so thin on skills. 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Creating a main Character

Two more big sleeps before the word nerds (yup, that includes me) start banging away on their keyboards in the quest to drop 50000 words on the hard drive in 30 days. 
My goal today is to complete my main characters bio. It will be a comprehensive description covering every aspect of his life. Yes, my MC is a guy. 
In order to bring a character to life in the minds of the reader it is important for the writer to create a character in depth before words inflate their lungs and give them life. It includes, the obvious stuff such as name, age, height, weight, colour of eyes and hair, etc. It could include a date of birth, the fact that he doesn't like carrots, keeps tooth picks in his car, is allergic to cats, only ever wears lace up shoes and  is a fastidious dresser. 
Small details like having 2 sisters, a widowed mother who he visits every second Thursday, enjoys online chess and has his suits dry cleaned every second week add depth. He might not currently be in a relationship but the details of his past relationships should be detailed. How long, why did they end, how were they terminated?
  What is his personality like? Maybe he doesn't suffer fools gladly, perhaps he is long suffering. Is he sensitive or not. Is he opinionated. Does he squeeze the tooth paste tube from the end or the middle. 
While most of this detail will never be revealed in the story it helps the writer to deliver a person who responds in accordance with his world view shaped by past experiences and prejudices. Just like a real person would. 
 We as individuals often reveal different facets of ourselves dependant on the situation we are in. Our boardroom persona may and should differ significantly from the person who dresses up as a clown to entertain his 2 years olds friends at a birthday party. However, no mater what facet is in view, the underlying gem is still the same. Warts and all.
Readers expect their heroes to be consistent. Failure to define and deliver a consistent and believable character will result in the reader disconnecting and interest in the story line drying up. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Write what you know

As I contemplate and plan my first novel I have found the process thoroughly absorbing. While a novel is the goal, I am currently more intrigued by the process as I dip my little toe in the waters of the writers world. I would love to say 'immerse' but, apart from being arrogant, it would do a huge injustice to those people who have spent decades of their lives developing and honing their skills. 
I love the documentaries about the making of movies. The actors talk about their characters in the movie as if they are real people - their inner turmoil, prejudices, passions and key motivators. Actors understand the importance of indwelling a character. 
Successful writers instinctively understand the importance of crafting real characters. Actually, I detect that  there are at least two distinct character development skills at play but more about that in a later blog. 
Right now I want to explore the first rule of writing that most people are familiar with - write what you know. 
Let me say up front that what I say on this blog about writing is merely my first glance interpretation of how the various skills and tools interact. It will probably seem incredibly naive to seasoned writers, like my buddy Fiona Coward who started on this process many years ago. That's okay. I hope that in years to come I myself find it cringeworthy. Some may call it embarrassing. I like to think of it as personal growth. If my perception hasn't moved on it means I am either incredibly perceptive or I am simply as naive as when I started. 
"Write what you know." What does that mean? If you are an engineer should the story be about engineers or orbit around the axis of their experiences? It could, but I believe the injunction encapsulated in those  four simple words has much broader scope. 
Firstly, there is an implication to not write about what you do not know. For example, if I decided to write a plot set in Elizabethan England I would be on a hiding to nowhere. I could Google "Elizabethan England facts" and get a handful of shallow detail that I could weave into the story - cruel punishments for inconsequential 'crimes', wreaths of garlic to keep germs at bay, etc.. However it would lack the attention to detail that would breathe life into the scenes. Furthermore, anyone even remotely familiar with the period would quickly reassign your book  to the section of the library marked 'humour'.
   The thing that consumes most of our time on daily basis does not define what we know. For example, Doug is an engineer. That's not all he knows. He could also be an amateur adventurer, a husband, a father of a member or the PTA. We know a lot more than we think we know. We understand love, fear, hunger and uncertainty, to mention a few. Draw on those experiences and emotions when writing them into your story. 
  Now for a twist. There are those who say the guideline of 'write what you know' is problematic as it builds barriers and limits would-be authors who consider themselves boring. 
I have been surprised at the interest in fantasy. I have no appetite for the genre but apparently it is served up on huge buffet tables with queues of people waiting to select their poison from a surfeit of choice. 
The beauty of fantasy is that the author knows everything about that world and its people's. I imagine however, that it take an enormous amount of skill to build and populate that world in the mind of the reader. Lack of appetite aside, I don't have the skills to attempt that. 
   I am going with a far simpler approach. My story will take place in a contemporary setting - Jo'burg, 2014. I live here and now so I know the setting. That's one hurdle less for me to navigate. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Strawberry Jam and Novel Writing

Fiona Coward put a post on our Weekend Rides Whatsapp Group a month ago asking if anyone had any spare lever-lock keys. I had a whole bunch so offered her a pile. 
We got together and she mentioned they were for her annual NaNoWriMo kickoff. As it was a steampunk theme I offered to make her a whole pile of squared gear thingymajigs. I kind of knew she was invoked in an annual novel writing thing but was short on detail. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal per the website is as follows:

"National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel."

To save you a long story you can go read more about it at  

Fiona asked casually "why don't you do it?" With no Munga in my immediate future I pretty much decided there and then that it would be a good idea to swap my pedals for a pen. 
Is there a novel waiting to burst out of my head? No. Did I have any idea of what I was going to write about?Again, No. 
Often you hear the phrase 'you should write a book about that', but the reality is that many think about it and a tiny few convert that thought into words on a page. 
I thought it would be interesting to temporarily reinvent this blog space and keep a conversation going in parallel with writing a book. 
I am no writer. I have never done any creative writing but I think it could be a whole pile of fun. I have a lot to learn about crafting dialogue, creating and resolving gripping conflict and developing a credible plot populated with believable characters and scenarios. 
Fiona's advise, "don't overthink it, just vomit the words on to the page. You can always edit it afterwards."
This is where the strawberry jam comes into play. Chris Morris always advises people who are feeling nauseous to eat strawberry jam. He assures them it does nothing for the nausea but it sure makes the vomit taste better. I am busying myself scratching through the interwebs trying to learn as much as I can before the vomit process begins. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Munga race postponed until Dec 2015

Press release this morning saying that owing to the key sponsor pulling out the inaugural running of The Munga will be postponed for a year.
It's a tough call for the organisers and I am not sure it is the right one. I would have preferred the race to have gone ahead albeit with a reduced entry fee and a commensurate decrease in the prize money. I believe it could have been rebranded as a Million Rand race and the entry fee reduced substantially. There is a domestic appetite for tough races and the idea of racing the first edition has appeal. They are going to get slaughtered on the social media platforms as already witnessed on The Hub. The fixation on a million dollar race is probably the downfall. It's a huge purse but a purse that is effectively shared by 3 winning teams and one lucky draw. Once you have a handful of true contenders you have to ask how much of a draw card is a lucky draw prize? Is it worth $10k entry fee to stand a chance to win $100k? Very few people will turn their noses up at $100k but to be honest, if you can afford to stump up $10k to enter, $100k is unlikely to change your life and you are certainly not going to enter the race just to have a remote chance of winning a lucky draw.
I can understand the sponsor withdrawing. I have absolutely no knowledge of the who, what or why of the deal but assume that someone was happy to underwrite the prize money after being presented with the entry forecast. After all,the press around the race indicated a cut off at 450 teams. Do the maths and you will see the prize money as well as the logistics and admin around the race would have been well covered even at only half that number of teams.
It's back to the drawing board for the organisers. Sadly for them the echoes of the naysayers will reverberate for a while yet.

Sunday, 12 October 2014


My race partner Sean Badenhorst used the word combination preparation/trepidation to describe his activities and mindset leading up to The Munga. The key word in this combo is "trepidation". It's often paired with fear as in "...with fear and trepidation...". Fear is a synonym for trepidation so pairing those words simply aids to underscore the feeling of disquiet and anxiety. Anxiety ahead of and during a race can be decidedly debilitating. My first Freedom Challenge race was back in 2007. I think I lost about 10 kg's that year, most of it due to anxiety. The Freedom Trail route takes riders into and through some incredibly remote spaces both geographically and mentally. When you don't know what lies yonder you feel like a nervous explorer of old heading over the horizon into an area marked 'hic sunt dracones' 'here are dragons'. Had a very real sense of that during the 2007 Freedom. Somewhere just north of Molteno it started snowing and what at first was a picturesque fairytale setting soon settled into a desperate fight to survive the weather. In hindsight it wasn't so bad but I had absolutely no idea where the trail was headed and what obstacles I would face so the desperation mushroomed in that knowledge vacuum. Foreknowledge of the challenges you will face allows you to mentally prepare. Leading up to this years Race to Rhodes I had mentally ridden the race at least once everyday for the last month. Detailed knowledge of the terrain allowed me to formulate a minute by minute strategy that apart from an unforeseen wind storm worked out almost as planned. 
Heading up to The Munga we know only half a dozen things, start near Bloemfontein, end near Stellenbosch, support stations roughly every 180 km's and water should be available every 60 kms or so. No seconding and outside assistance. That's it. 
Oh, one more thing we thought we knew - the route will be marked. Can confidently say it is highly unlikely as logistically it is impossible to do so. The race route will be GPS guided. 
With all the uncertainty, don't get me wrong, I am not criticising, the mental preparation is limited to the obvious challenges such as how and what will I eat and drink, how long before I stop to sleep etc. 
The physical preparation is all about hardening up on the bike, predominantly time in the saddle. 
Lacking data you tend to speculatively fill in the blanks. I guess we will leave Bloemfontein and head toward Stellenbosch keeping west of the N1. That should route us near De Aar toward the Roggeveld mountains near Sutherland before dropping into the Western Cape and then snake through the Skurweberge mountains near Ceres to Tulbagh and then head south to the finish. All wild speculation! The route will be revealed the day before the race by which time the die will already be well and truly cast. 
Without adequate mental hard points to fix on the challenge is tougher. Fear is amplified. You either succumb to that fear or use it to motivate. As a motivator it is a powerful tool. Sure I have fears. Fear of failing to finish, fear of being the weak link in the partnership. These fears properly harnessed will be the motivation to get out on my bike, get me into a regular stretching and body conditioning regime and get me to push beyond my comfort zones. 

I have heard people say it takes a certain amount of courage to embark on a race like The Munga. It's going to be hard and we are going to hurt and most certainly go to dark places and the prospect of not finishing is a very real threat. For those of us who have experienced the hardship of endurance events these very challenges are what makes our ears prick up and and those desperate words roll uncontrollably from our lips "please pick me"

"Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear; The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all." Meg Cabot

Friday, 10 October 2014

Slow progress

This past weekend I rode the 3 day Mankele 3 Towers Race with Gavin George. Firstly let me say what an amazing race. It's tough with 2 standout components - plenty of climbing and some awesome single track sections called "Bush Tunnels". The bush tunnels are essentially dry water courses carved out by storm water. They are thickly bushed with plenty of rocks in the dry river bed. A lot of effort has been made to clear a technical single track through these ravines often for a number of kilometres. Gavin was much stronger than me as expected. It was a bit of a wake up call for me ahead of The Munga. We finished 76/150 in GC and 24/50 in sub vets which is Gavin's age group. I didn't have enough power to scamper up the climbs and that cost us. Need to work on dropping more weight. Sean Badenhorst is in good shape and is a full 10kgs lighter than me. Excess blubber is a poor travel companion on a bike. 
A few days rest and it's back to the training grind. I need to improve both my endurance and speed. I have good plodding endurance but that will not serve well on The Munga as its going to be a flat fast race. Will plan to hook up with Sean for training rides and we can start figuring out how our riding styles are going to mesh. Interestingly enough we have only ever ridden together once and that was a short night ride.