The gate on the edge of town

“You’re in the great game now, and the great game is terrifying”- Tyrion Lannister

In life, we are all members of the great audience. Every single person reading this has at one time or another acted as a witness. We don’t acknowledge it of course, not really, but it’s still happening every second of the day.

A first kiss, a failed exam, an accident on the road: all are part of the ongoing show. And of course, it’s actually quite easy to imagine your role in the audience. What is perhaps slightly less clear is where you fit in the overall spectacle. Who has seen you at your worst? Who has watched you at your best? More importantly, could they tell the difference?

Memories are a funny thing, constantly changing depending on how we feel, and never sitting still for long enough to be truly appreciated. We all remember, let’s say, opening our Leaving Cert results. But do we really? To me, everything that was ever anything is in many ways a serving of blur with a little dash of clarity.

Both of these concepts, witnesses and memories, have been whirling around in my head since I finished college. There was after all a moment where suddenly it all ended, and overwhelmed by emotion I doubt I was thinking “take a breath and appreciate this little snapshot; it’s a picture you’ll only take once.” But that is the truth of it nonetheless. This was the end, and I can’t just go back and ask for a little more time there now.

Putting my pen down, closing the exam booklet and walking out of that last exam are all part of my story, but who knows who was secretly watching? Those who care, those who don’t, or those indifferent. My story, but their spectacle.

Trapped in the little bubble of college, not sharp to the world moving around me, I don’t think I’ve ever really thought much about being in the spectacle. In a crowded library you can be lost in your own notes, but looking up now and again you realise everything is getting on without you. Now, there are no more notes, and it’s time to join the ranks of those making the world go round.

In that respect college is a bit like your bedroom. There are an infinite number of things you can accomplish there, but outside those walls other things are in motion the scale of which you can’t start to imagine cooked up in there. It’s not that you’re out of touch, more so you’re kept within the confines of something measurable. It’s all happening in a lecture theatre, in a library, on campus etc.

And so now that I’m leaving, the outside world feels a little alien again. It’s very much in the title of this blog. There’s a gate at the edge of town, and inside it you know everything and everyone. You’ve been to the gate of course. I mean, you can even tell me what it’s made of and what it feels like to run your hand over. But you’ve never been outside it. Sometimes at dusk, you’ve sat on it for hours and thought about the fields beyond or the next town over. And never once did you really believe that the day was coming when you’d finally pass through it. That was a dream-a notion. Notions weren’t tolerated in this town.

And yet, that day does come. You feel about a stone lighter, and rather than skip up to the gate like you usually do you sort of wander there half in a haze of your own thoughts and emotions. The sun is going down in the west but there’s enough light to see the first few steps on the road. And then quite suddenly there is the moment, and before you’ve even thought to mark it you’re on the other side. And then there’s a panic and the sudden want to turn round. It isn’t a desire to go back, and even if it is you’ve long resigned yourself to the fact that that isn’t happening. You just realise you wanted it to be memorable though, and a part of you isn’t sure that it was.

Should’t there have been someone there to say goodbye, or give a little cheer as you passed over the threshold?

And yet maybe there was, and not turning to see their face you press on with your journey.

After all, they are the witness, and right there and then you were at either your best or worst. Perhaps they know the difference.

 

Here now, at the fork in the road

Robert Frost, the great American poet, lived through an interesting time. He was witness to the turn of the century, two world wars, the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, the flight of the first airplane and just before he went out, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Somewhere in there, he must have sat down, turned a phrase over in his mind and wrote

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

It’s a pretty simple phrase, but effective nonetheless, as the “fork in the road” exists for just about everyone. After all, life is a journey, and the damn road is littered with choices. Some of these “forks” are easy. Going right is much the same as going left, in terms of destination at least. Yes, what happens along the way might be different, but at some point the woods thin out and you find the paths join up again. And a part of you will think back to that choice in the road and surmise it never really mattered, while another part will look back along “the road not taken” and wonder what might have been, for better or for worse. Yet still, these are the routine decisions, and finding yourself exactly where you thought you’d be, your journey goes on.

The more difficult “forks” are the ones for which we cannot see beyond the first few steps on either road. Out there in the mist, only one thing is certain; these paths will never cross again.

No matter how confident you are in a choice, that fact can still haunt you. The concept of finality is daunting, but for most people it only becomes an issue when we feel it’s going to throw us off track. We all have a journey’s end in mind, a kind of hidden cottage, and though we’re happy to enjoy whatever the road has to offer us along the way, at some point we all want to turn a corner, see little puffs of smoke rising over the treetop and realize “I made it”.

Luckily for us, we have a rough map to guide us. Tracing our fingers over it, we can see a fork at age five, a fork at age twelve, a big fork at age eighteen and somewhere further along, a fork at twenty-two.

That last fork, the end of my college years, is where I find myself now. I think back to some smug lecturer saying “these years will fly”and now I, only one week away from finishing lectures, sigh and admit they were right. It’s like coming upon a crossroads long before the map says it was due. Now it’s there, and regardless of what that piece of paper says, you’re going to have to pick a lot sooner than you’d imagined.

In these situations us travellers often find comfort in “making camp for the night”, which is to say, sitting down with a decision and thinking about it. It’s a fairly good call. Taking the wrong road is bad; taking it in the dark is another matter entirely.

Unfortunately, the dawn waits for nobody, and soon we have to get up, put out our fires, throw on our packs and take that first wobbly step in what we hope is the right direction.

This particular fork, which I long thought of as nothing more than “that bit before my pre-reg year” is shaping up to be more climactic than I’d given it credit for. After all, it’s not often you move job, finish education, sit exams, say somewhat of a goodbye to friends and try figure out where you’re going all in one month. Taken one by one, these are all fairly benign. It’s together that they start to weigh more, and feel like one of those transition periods where you kind of watch yourself from the outside hoping you don’t fuck up.

And quite likely I, or you a person reading this in a similar situation, will fuck up. That’s not the end of the world, and it definitely isn’t the end to the journey.

What is perhaps more disturbing for me than the notion of failure is, as I’ve alluded to, the concept of finality. I’d like to think if I had a few shots at the start of what is basically my adult life that at least one time things would turn out like I want them to. But I definitely don’t have a “few shots”. This isn’t a Thursday for God’s sake.

And so the time I spend “making camp” over these next few months is likely going to be very important. The next year of my life is there for the taking, in so much as its routine contents are fairly set in stone and all I have to do is turn up and keep breathing. After that, the tent is going to have to come down, and I’m going to have to step out onto the road. A part of me sees myself back in UCC, edging forward into the vast forest of a PhD and taking comfort in the fact that though the road is long and arduous, it is still on the map. Depending on what day you ask me I might also muse that UCC isn’t the only college known to man, and though I’m a Cork City boy at heart, there’s a wide world about us. That would certainly be uncharted territory, where many a brave or foolhardy traveller has been lured by the promise of treasure.

Quite plainly, this next year might also stray me from the path, into a part of the profession I’ve always admired but never imagined myself at home. Community pharmacy isn’t where I see myself, but Christ knows I never saw myself learning about drugs when I was fifteen either.

Lastly, arguably least importantly, but most selfishly, I wonder about where this journey takes my writing. It will be a long night staring into the dying embers of the fire, and before the sun comes up this may be the only question I answer, or the only one that I don’t. However, if four years of college have thought me anything, it’s that at some point, I’ll have to answer it.

You can set up camp, but the dark is only fleeting.

You can stop to rest, but you are young, and you have no need of it.

You can dither, dawdle, pause and even doubt, but you cannot turn back.

The Journey’s End is far away yet, and there are many things on the road you have to see if you’re to reach it.

Many people, myself included, know that in many ways the journey is what matters, but though I can afford to get lost in it, I can’t forget that out there little puffs of smoke rise over the treetop.

And that in itself is why the journey matters.

As Robert Frost once quoted

I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Defence of Worldbuilding

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*The following post involves a terrifying amount of burger/restaurant metaphor*

The last book you read involved worldbuilding. There, I said it.

What’s world building? Well, it’s quite simple. It is literally the process of creating a world for an art form to take place in. Every novel has to have a world, whether it’s Earth or not. World building doesn’t just include the actual physical setting e.g. Hogwarts or Panem, but actually goes much deeper than that.

If you think of the physical setting as a burger bun, then the rest of world building is all that juicy meat and salad that sits right in the middle. I mean sure, the bun is necessary to hold it all together, but when was the last time your stomach really growled over two pieces of bread with a couple sesame seeds on top? What you want is the filling, right?

The filling of a world, however, is seen in the little things: why does nobody walk down 2nd street at night? Why is the grass blue by the lake? How do you get elected to government in the country?

Of course, government is a “big thing”,but in the grand scheme of a novel it could only be a minor feature.

Another question readers commonly have is not what’s in the proverbial burger, but why are we cooking it at all in the first place?

World building is something stereotypically associated with fantasy or sci-fi novels, where in many cases authors have a blank canvas in front of them and just have to dive in and start somewhere. It’s thought that fantasy authors waste hours and hours drooling over languages and maps and leave little time for an actual story to develop. This is an understandable assumption, but one that leaves a lot of novels outside these genres suffering from terrible foundations. It’s all-too-easy for an author in general fiction or romance to play into this and forgo basic research or background detail in favour of characterisation or plot.

But while many readers might argue they never pay much attention to the details built into a world, it is usually the case that the best writers blend these features so seamlessly into a story that the reader often doesn’t even notice they’re there. Instead they get a kind of subconscious knowledge of the world. It’s a bit like Inception. A good book kind of makes you feel like you are in the world and that it was your desire to be there, not the writer’s skill, that got you there. It’s like the waiter telling you he brought you the vegetarian option by mistake right after you’ve tossed aside your napkin thinking you just wolfed down a quarter pounder and cheese. Sure, you feel aggrieved you weren’t right, but didn’t you enjoy it all anyway?  Didn’t all those details taste so good, regardless of whether you profess to like them or not?

That’s what good world building does. But why talk about all the good burgers (reference noted) when it’s the blackened ruins you remember more? So instead of trying to defend world building by showing you the best thing on the menu, I’m gonna go right ahead and point out a few ways you might ruin a summer BBQ and piss off a lot of readers as a result.

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1) “I have bacon and cheese and tomato and lettuce and hot sauce and jalapenos and…and….and”

Nothing says bad world building like not knowing where to draw the line. One minute you’re wondering how big your city is, and the next you’re trying to figure out which tattoos the Grim Gang get when one of their members gets killed. Who are the Grim Gang? I don’t know-literally just made them up. My point is it’s very easy for good and bad writers to just forget they were in the middle of a story and fall into the pit of “well I can make FOUR gangs where you only had three. I must be better”. Details aren’t merited by their quantity. Any good reader wants something a) innovative and b) well presented, which leads me onto my next point

2)”Can I get you something to drink? By the way the special is a chicken fillet burger”

Your details are only as good as your delivery, and all that excellent creative ability goes to waste if you just walk around the restaurant that is your novel shouting “THE SPECIAL IS CHICKEN FILLET”. Maybe the reader might catch on you’re forcing the point.

What you want is for them to spy it on the corner of the menu, or catch a glimpse of it on a sign on the way in. Make the reader feel it is almost hidden; almost left in by accident rather than you just screaming it in their face. They’re a lot of ways a writer can dangle out this “oops did I mention that my apologies” hook, like blurring details into dialogue rather than narration, or creating plot strings that might nudge in a couple aspects of your world into the reader’s field of vision. Whatever option you choose, it’s important to remember to mix it up. Even when you use a trick, if it’s consistent throughout a novel it eventually becomes predictable and a little annoying.

3)”Let me take your coat. By the way the dessert is pavlova”

Dear God, your reader has only sat down for their dinner and already you’re telling them about dessert menus and the service charge. Slow it down there. I mean, those details weren’t even in the original burger metaphor so this is clearly world building out of control. This is referred to in world building circles *adjusts glasses* as infodumping. Infodumping is where you have a large amount of detail the reader needs to grasp the story but rather than dole it out piece by piece you just want to bring them the entire four course dinner (burger et al) to their table at once and hope they don’t kick up a fuss about it. Long story short, they usually do. Good writers use the length of their novel to their advantage. I’ve read a lot of novels lately that have been exploiting infodumping to appeal to a select portion of readers who collect facts about a world like gold dust. Most people won’t enjoy the overload though, so best to leave the bill at least until after they’ve finished their soup.

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4)”The bun is bread. Bread is flour. Flour is wheat. Wheat is cereal…”

This kind of ties in with number one, but here the problem isn’t the amount of stuff you’re packing into the burger as much as how much you’re talking about that damn burger. Think of it like a menu listing. A good menu quips a short two-liner on each item, and that seems to be enough to grab the attention of 99% of restaurant goers. What you want to avoid as a writer is writing a page on every single ingredient like people will flip out if they don’t know. You have to give the customer some credit (warning don’t give them real credit you need money). All readers/ customers are coming into your novel with a basic working knowledge, and if you keep spoonfeeding them they’re gonna want to punch you at some point (love how spoonfeeding works for restaurants here too, as an aside).

5)”Ya so that’s the burger. Meat and bun.”

As a converse to number four, don’t skim all the way back either. You still want your burger to be juicy and palatable. So invest your time in innovating. Bacon in a burger? Game changer. Somebody must have come up with it. The same goes for world building. Fan-favourites such as dragons and alternative universes all had to have started somewhere. So as a writer, try be the somewhere. If you want your world to be more than just a burger, then go ahead and start creating. At the end of the day, you’ll always find people who’ll eat it. Don’t try cook your burger like the place down the street just because they seem to have a staple crowd. For whatever reason, in a lot of cases people just won’t buy yours.

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6) “This is red onion not white onion?”

One of the biggest parts of world building is keeping a tab on it. Just go ask G.R.R Martin how his burger is coming along. You best believe he has to use one of those fancy sticks to keep that mess together. Anyway, if you want to keep a reader in that state of “oh I’m in a restaurant this is great I’m not paying through the roof for this” (commonly referred to as a state of disbelief), then you have to be bringing your A-game. No chef likes to see a burger come back in the door of the kitchen in the hands of a startled waiter. If you’re gonna do it, do it right the first time. Keep accurate accounts of place names, maps, customs etc etc. Don’t try keep all the ingredients in your head. Write down anything you need for your novel and if it relates to anything else, then make a note of that too. It’s usually something really stupid you mess up e.g. red onion-white onion (seen in a novel for example as somebody travelling 100 miles far too fast). It’s very rare you actually are so clued out that you forget the actual burger.

So, as you can see, creating a world isn’t as easy as bun, meat, salad, bun. It takes a good bit of prep work and if not done right can literally blow up right in your face. The best way to move forward is have a system and stick to it (but hey, still leave room for a little flair here and there). World building is a wonderful tool to have as a writer, and one that a lot of readers (either consciously or subconsciously) will welcome time and time again. No matter what genre you’re in, consider it a valid part of your work and invest time into making the all important transition from built-world to world-in-story. Remember, those burgers won’t cook themselves.

Order up!

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10 things not to do in the library

There’s enough of these during study months etc, but I said I’d get in early since the examples are rampant. With a swarm of new faces in college, the incidence has spiked and so here I am to countdown ten of the things people in the library will remember your face for.

1. Hiding your facebook

Look, we know you’re on it. Don’t try hide it in a separate tab, or minimizing your screen, or stretching to block the screen. Anybody with a laptop that has 1/100th of a bar of connectivity and is between the ages of zero and twenty five (because after that, it’s all downhill) will instinctively throw up their social networks on their internet. Nobody is gonna judge you, embrace it.

2. Leaving the sound on anything

Phone? Laptop? Breathing? If I’m next to someone and they have their sound on it gets to me. Not because it interferes (in fact all teenagers are don’t even notice it in this day and age), but because it puts out the idea that “yes, I do know it’s on. What ya gonna do?” Well I’m gonna walk right over and smash your stupid overpriced flip phone give you a look, I guess.

3. Bringing your friend over

OK, this one tops all as the worst thing in the library. During study month you’ll inevitably get that one guy who ambles from desk to desk advertising to his determined and anxious class mates how he, a jolly lad, is in the library. So novel is the idea of studying in a new building, or just studying at all, that this man must parade his four pages of food stained notes from bench to bench loudly whispering how he knows what is coming up. For those in august, I’m sorry, he’ll be back.

4. Putting on a movie

My god anywhere but the library. Nobody ever watches “Schindler’s List” in the library. Nobody sits back and throws on “Titanic”. No. It is always dodgeball or step brothers or the last king of scotland. OK, so that last one is irrelevant, but I saw it recently and it was very good. Just watch it in the corner if you must. Does it always have to be in a middle desk with the volume high up and the jokes pouring out from the leaky gaps of your ear debilitating headphones?

5. Leaving for like 3 hours

Everyone knows those seats that everyone wants. They have a good view, not too much light, A PLUG. Please don’t be that never-present ghost who has been reserving the seat since before the cold war. I’ve seen desks empty all day. Soon, I can imagine the library staff will take to declaring some people legally dead due to their absence. RIP lads…

6. Taking a phone call at your desk

RING!!!! RING!!!! “hello, ya I’m just in the library. what? SPEAK UP.” <—–This guy. Does the hallway not exist as a point to some people? Do they just assume the initial door opened up to their desk and they did not move through any area where noise was tolerated to a phonecall level? No? Shocking….

7. Printing….oh…just an entire book

Page, page, page, page, page,page…..And it just keeps going! You stand there in sheer disbelief as to when this will end, afraid you have been caught in some kind of time loop where the print job just won’t finish. I think a 50 page rule is about fair. Even at that, I’d be hoping that was 25 front and back. God like just buy the book you’re probably paying the equivalent anyway. Can only imagine what would happen if UCC Boole had colour printing.

8. Incessant walking syndrome

That one person who you’re wishing the white-coated library staff would come over to and lash to the bench. You’ve seen this person do 6 laps of the floor already, and if anything they are picking up speed. They also make sure to take the most awkward and longest possible way around each area, making sure to kick enough bags that they have to make scratchy “sorrys” all day long.

9. The Beast

That one guy (hardly ever girls) who brings a four course meal to the library. Chicken roll, drink, crisps..wait,what is that, is that a dip? And the best part is he is on some level conscious so he makes sure to drag on the eating process for some forty minutes. Each snap of a crisp is another flick to your patience, and slowly but surely you find yourself packing up and moving off.

10. Keyboard slapping

SPACEBAR. The single most slapped key in all of library time-space, possibly closely followed by enter. And of course this guy left 3,000 words to the last four hours, so he is allllll slap slap slap. And just once..the girl or guy will get to a stage where they need to skip a couple lines….

Tips on how to reduce your procrastination for study

Fairly self explanatory, we all do it. In fact I’m in the library right now doing it in all fairness. Study can be interesting, but even interesting might not be enough to convince you to take on such a task. Exercise is fun too, but its the thought of effort that puts us off more than the actual act. Over the years I’ve put up with enough of my own procrastination to know where everybody stands, and so I’m gonna share a couple things that have worked for me when it really mattered.

1. Stop telling yourself something is unimportant

Maybe it’s a small essay or a presentation, but it still matters. Telling yourself you won’t need to put in effort is a certain predecessor to you actually not putting in any at all. Even for small percentage tests, tell yourself that everything about it is crucial. don’t listen to what anybody else is doing. Find out just how much you need to do and then go do it. 

2. Reward yourself

A common device for avoiding backing out of your studies is treating yourself after. Mostly students use a food item or a night on the town. While that may be good in the short term, try to plan your long term reward system on something healthy and beneficial. If you have a study system, take a day off. If you want to go somewhere or buy something relatively inexpensive, do it. Giving yourself an item to reach is a useful and versatile tool into convincing you to study. What can work better again is having the security that you won’t get what you want unless you put in the work (i.e. have parents/friends assure you they will refuse you that certain present you’ve been planning as your reward).

3. Stop thinking about your procrastination

Procrastination is a ten dollar word every nine year old in the developed world knows. The concept has become so common place that it now is a essential thread of student life and rarely will remain hidden from the guidance books of your place of study. What will guarantee procrastination is thinking about it. Most sufferers tell themselves before the assignment is even started they have no hope. Most will tell all their friends about their procrastination, and try fob off that they are not at all worried. Using the term and the idea of you being stuck in its grasp will only make it worse. Instead, forget about it. Realise that you are fully capable f doing the work and go tackle it.

4. Lose all distractions

A procrastinating student will find distractions with incredible ease. Whether it’s a match, a day out with friends or just a dish that really needs a good scrub, all victims will search out every point of their life to find something to distract from the task. To avoid this, pick a day on which you will work and a time. do not let that time center around anything else but the job at hand. Make sure you can’t be called away or interrupted, as your will will succumb if you even have half a chance at escape. Tell your family or room mates to not disturb you or offer you anything in the form of entertainment. And when you reach your time goal/work load goal, stop. A good first step is to complete just one day’s work level and leave it. You don’t want mad bursts and then the after thought that as a result you won’t need to do anything else.

5. Never take the advice of somebody else doing the work too

We’re all human. As a result although we strive to be honest, helpful and supportive, we mostly end up serving our own desires. How often does a victim of procrastination end up suffering in terms of grades because others dragged them further down. If you have procrastination, do not ask how others are getting on. If you really need help, ask someone who you know will be fully forthcoming about what they have achieved or put in. At all costs avoid people who will only (as is in their human nature) feed you false senses of security about how fine it will all be. You don’t want to be calm as a procrastinating student. You should be worried. These students will most likely fulfill their own work first then find ways to meddle in your own.

6. Find the right balance

A good balance involves knowing at the end of the day that the whole world wasn’t just study. It also involves the knowledge that the work is done. You should be comfortable with your own level of performance. Many procrastinating students will put down their efforts as the process was still daunting. This will not help going forward. Take each small success with renewed expectations, and push to better yourself every time. Procrastination is a long term effect of a short term uncertainty.

 

Reasons your study isn’t increasing your exam marks

I’m going to go and guess that if you’re reading this you already do some level of study for your classes. If you can’t study, or just downright refuse to do so, then this might not be much help. I might write a blog soon for people who struggle with study. This blog is assuming you want to improve though, and in fact have put in some effort to do so in the past. I realise college has just started, and nobody is studying, but the advice works on any scale. Whether it’s a two page assignment, or a 6,000 word project, study skills are equal in nature. If you find yourself struggling to study for smaller tests, it would serve you a lot better to get into good habits for them, so that the larger, more important exams end up being much easier. I’ll write a few of these study guides when I feel like it throughout the year. A lot of the time the disappointing marks you receive don’t boil down to lack of study. In a surprising number of cases, poor percentages stem from inefficient study.

  • You don’t go to class. Class is where you first hear the material. It is free study. It is the information put across to you by an expert in the field. Unless your lecturer is horrible, attend and maximise the hour or so you have there. Take notes and underline to keep up concentration. Listen and watch the display to deduce the important points. Class might also help for detecting exam questions.
  • You don’t think when you study. If you’re just reading the material, you’re gonna be lost. Think about each point and ask yourself do you really get it. Understand first, memorise second. To be honest the more of a subject you understand, the less you actually end up needing to just push into your head the week before the test. Strive to be able to break the material into a form where you could explain it to anybody. This mistake kills about 99.9% of all students. Most never even engage the material when they read over it. For the few who do, a lot still only ask ‘what will come up in the exam?’ Forget the exam (WARNING: do not actually forget exam). Focus on whether or not you actually know what’s in front of you. Look away from the notes and try tell yourself the story of the information there.
  • You aren’t taking breaks. A good time to take breaks is every forty minutes or every hour. Take a fifteen minute break. DO NOT USE IT TO GO ON FACEBOOK. I’m guilty of doing this too, but please try refrain. Get up and walk around. Go get something to eat. Fruits and juices are great sources of sugars that don’t give you the same crash you’ll get from chocolate or sweets.
  • You are picking the wrong time. Study at mid-morning or in the evening. Take a break after classes to allow yourself rest. Tackle study when you are fresh and awake. Late at night is about as useful as when you are sleeping. Yes, that means it is no use at all. A lot of people will vouch for all nighters. I can tel you both as a science enthusiast and someone with ample common sense that you are not functioning anywhere near capacity that late. A good sleep and early study is far far better. Save a late nighter for an emergency if you are unprepared for an exam. Even then, shut everything off and get to bed by midnight.
  • You never heard of extra reading or reading around your topic. Lecture notes are fine. But they’re born and live as concise samples of the material. Only the best get a full understanding out of shortened notes. Most need a slower delivery. That’s where books come in. A book gives it bit by bit. If you do understand the notes, read them anyway. Getting a second view is paramount for top marks and usually gives you a broader source of information to draw from.
  • You are giving in to easy. Will power is paramount with study. I’m not talking about the will to study; I’m referring to the will to give up on your memory. Try to relay lists back to yourself of things you need to know. If you get stuck, don’t look at the screen immediately for the answer. WRONG. Give yourself time, try to remember other things about the precise subject area and you’ll quickly re-jog your memory. If you give in without trying to remember, you’ll put yourself into that mentality for the exam. Remembering rote-learned material is not fun at all. If you’re gonna do it at least challenge yourself.
  • You spend WAY TOO MUCH TIME ORGANISING. This one even kills the smart people. It will slow you down really fast if you let organisation get to you. Should your notes be accessible and in an easy to learn format? YES. Should all the notes have accompanying flash cards, colour co-ordinates, book references and re-written notes? NO!!!!! I can’t emphasise this enough. Do you need flashcards to remember the three roles of x? Maybe. Do you need them to recall the three functions of y? Perhaps. People tend to jump on the bandwagon of flashcards, spider diagrams, pictures and anagrams to avoid what really matters. If you’re just gonna write out the notes again and not even bother thinking about them…GET OUT. I know some very organised people who get high marks because I know that behind it all they do the study. I also know far more people who are very organised who achieve marks that discredit them. Why? Because instead of engaging the material and actively learning, they spend time drawing diagrams for things they don’t understand. Waste of time if you never learn them. SERIOUSLY.
  • You organise too late. There’s no such thing as studying too early. By studying, I mean making all the diagrams and flash cards you want. This is fine. What will ruin your exam is spending the night before an exam re writing your notes. TOO LATE. Unless you have a very high rote-learning potential, you’ve just wasted precious study hours. Your preparation for an exam needs to happen months before you even hear it is scheduled. Whenever you have a chance, take a look at your notes, your book or your handouts and try put them in a form you can understand. Maybe that involves highlighting. Maybe it involves different coloured pens. Whatever it is, do it sooner rather than later and make sure that when you do it; you try your hand at understanding the notes at the same time.
  • You’re cutting things out. A technique that kills any grade is leaving things out of study. If you have a day, cut ,cut,cut!! But we’re talking good study. That involves addressing everything. If I told you to learn about football, you wouldn’t go and leave the goalkeeper out. True I may never ask about the goalkeeeper. But what about the relationship with the defenders? What about the interaction with opposing strikers? The second you start cutting things out; your overall understanding wanes and your grade starts to slide. Try to understand the hard parts. It makes learning the easy parts surprisingly simplistic.
  • You only study when you study. If there’s one thing that makes you get VERY high grades, it’s knowing that the study never really ends. I’m talking a twin method of action. Any time you have something laborious and boring to do; start studying. Have to clean your room? Ask yourself a couple question while you do. Standing around at work bored? Try to remember what you have to do for your organisation. This method is endless. It can extend from thinking about your study when you pass a book in a shop to putting things on your wall and having a quick look before you head out with your friends. It sounds crazy, and in truth it probably is, but I can guarantee the results. It’s basic logic. The longer you commit to a subject; the more you understand it, and the easier it is to study. The easier it is to study; the more you get in before exams and the better your grade is.

That’s enough to get somebody started. I’m gonna post more of these; to be honest all those ones just jumped to mind first. there are far more reasons your study doesn’t work and I’ll try write on it soon.

10 ways you can improve a short story for your english class

What is a short story? Much like judging the pieces themselves, the definition can at times be subjective. In general, we’re talking about something in the range of 1,000-9,000 words, though in cases that word count could shoot up to 20,000. We’re looking at small works of fiction; big enough to be able to stand alone, but short enough so that we really only ever see one or possibly two events. In the teaching of the English language in the modern day, short stories have solidified their position as one of the most viable forms of student essays. Realistically they can provide the greatest creative freedom. Whereas speeches and talks require the laborious task of assuming a formal tone, short stories allow the natural writing style to take control. A young mind is an imaginative mind, and what better way to show that than to bring whole new worlds and characters into being. That being said, even with their growing popularity, the short story is commonly viewed as an easy way out; a short cut to a good grade and an easy option to fall back on in any exam situation. Much of this arises from the vague wording of essay questions. Although a speech questions sets out the immediate issue, a short story may only need to draw on a certain theme or sentence for the chance to evolve. Even in an area of endless possibilities, we as story tellers need to play by the rules of our choice. Playing by some of the rules gets you a good standard. Playing by all of the rules gets you much, much further. As a result I’m gonna try my hand at outlining some key issues, which incidentally are all just falling into my head now.

1. See that dream sequence? It has to go…now.

We’ve all done them. Hopefully the older you get the less it arises. Now, before lovers of a good “I awoke in a sweat” smash their hands onto the keyboard, let me go further on this one. Dream sequences are tools used by some of the best writers around, but it’s where you use them that matters. If you can survey your story, and realise the whole thing works without the dream; cut it out now. Most of these openings only frustrate a reader, who thinks they have been landed in something fantastical and cool, only to find out the author was being very clever and painting a false reality. Also, ‘waking up from a scary dream that may come through later’ screams cliché. Writing a good start to hook the reader is important, but don’t fall back on something just for the sake of that. Basically, a lot of the unnecessary dream sequences run like this;

“I stumbled through the darkness(always dark in these nightmare ones), calling out for help and heaving in big breaths. I started to panic. A menacing laugh (I mean seriously) rang in my ears, and then I saw him (the ‘ole don’t give away the villain’ trick). Suddenly I was falling (they always are). I awoke with a jolt (couldn’t just flick your eyes open?). I was covered in sweat (bit OTT but OK). A light was coming in the window; it was morning (Reader is infuriated at both the trickery of the dream start and how the author must point out the obvious reality that it is morning). I heard my mother call downstairs; I groaned thinking of school (twenty euro says the mother is a single mom and that the male protagonist is unpopular in school). I threw on an old t-shirt and some jeans I found on the floor (why do they always insist on putting on terrible clothes from the floor? Oh yes, as usual, his room is messy).

I’m not going to continue, but the rest of this story always follows like this; ‘grabs toast just after popping because the yellow school bus is outside and he is late and he goes on the bus and averts his gaze from the footballers and sits alone and then his one friend comes on who has something quirky about them or is a nerd’. If your short story is in that format, go kick it across the room right now (DISCLAIMER: piece may be good but at this stage we’ve all seen that a hundred times). At this stage, ye get my point. A dream sequence if not needed wrecks any chance of a good opening, and fixes the idea in the readers mind; “The person who wrote this is a massive Richard” (no nicknames allowed).

2. Character description. Please don’t overload it.

Characters are the most important part of your story. They’re what’s main, what the whole thing revolves around and depends on. If the reader can’t see them, they won’t get very involved in your piece. As a result you need to describe them both physically and mentally (if the protagonist). However this has invariably led to a great deal of over description in many stories. Here’s a simple rule to live by: always think of describing your characters as trying to make a friend recollect someone they vaguely know. You never say to your friend, “Oh you know Peter, the guy with the eyes and the nose?”. Nobody can identify with that. It isn’t discriminating. Think of default on Fifa, and try work around it. What you do say to your friend is, “You know Peter, the guy with the scar by his left eye and the big chin?” granted Peter comes off as a bit of an ugly, violent man, but you see my point. as humans we pick up subtle differentiating characteristics. The only run of the mill things we always need to know are height/build and hair colour. For example, if I tell you I am tall, average build and have dark brown hair, you can surely already get someway towards picturing me. What you never want to do in your English essays is have your character stare into a mirror and go “I saw my hazel hair and my electric blue eyes. I was of average build, but hit the gym when I could. My nose was rather slender and long and my ears stuck out to the same degree as a normal human specimen’s would.” OK, I admit I overdone it near the end, but you see where I’m coming from. Anybody writing first person must NEVER say their hair is hazel or their eyes are electric blue. If someone told me that was their features I’d think, “Wow, what an arrogant Richard (seriously I’m going clean on this one).” Anybody writing 3rd person, keep it simple enough. In a short story we don’t need to picture them as well as you do. Leave some up to the reader. It is unfair to assume the reader can’t fill in some gaps themselves, and thus throw in every fragment of visual imagery you can think of. Hair colour and height are usually a must, unless you state an age and we can assume their build. Eye colour is of variable importance. Just highlight their striking features, and all is fine.

3. Keep the pace consistent

Unless your narrative demands it, don’t go cooling and heating up the pace on those words. We need a heightened pace near the conflict, and especially at the climax. We need a slow pace when we’re aiming towards that. Other than that a consistent pace is expected. Nothing is worse than reading of somebody going into massive detail for the act of pulling on a jumper, only to use three lines to get to school, have classes, and eat lunch. It just doesn’t sit right with the reader. It’s fine to skip the boring parts, but make sure it’s consistent. Don’t tell me “His feet shuffled along the floorboards, making small tapping sounds and coming to a rest in the doorway. The doorway was huge and made of mahogany and slightly worn” only to then say “about four days later”. it should write itself naturally in any case, but sometimes when we get nervous and want to jump to the good part, we take a huge leap and wreck the whole thing. Monitoring the level of detail and keeping an eye on how fast time is passing in-story should sort that out.

4. HAVE CONFLICT

Yes, this is an obvious one, but it would surprise people how many stories an English teacher might laugh at when they realise nothing has happened in the 3,000 words that are there. Conflict is huge in any work of fiction, but in a short story, it may as well be the corner stone. People like small stories because they get a small work load coupled with a nice piece of action. One way this might occur is if you go into too much detail at the start; a common mistake that stems from finding yourself in a new world and wanting to explore it (I admit, everyone does this). Make sure you know what the problem is at the start, and always work towards it. If you’re confident of your ability, you might even throw in subtle hints of what the reader should expect; dropping them into dialogue and making use of literary fancies like pathetic fallacy. OK, so pathetic fallacy might not be SO fancy, but it has pathetic in it, it sounds cool. If you plan ahead, the conflict will always arise, and a good grader will pick up on the fact that you had control of the plot all the way through. Never try squash in your action at the end. What you want there in terms of action may be a twist, but never your main predicament.

5. Little language things that go a long way……to ruining your entire story

Language matters. In some cases, up to half the marks might go to your use of it. I’m not gonna try preach about grammar. I myself struggle with that. But the control of your language is VERY important, especially in short stories where description is abundant. At my age, and so at the age of college students and high school finishers, it may be tempting to throw down all the new words you are learning. Please refrain from this. What will drown your entire piece is too much adjectives, too much adverbs and too much ways of trying to say something. Adjectives are great; they help us see the world we’re writing. Sometimes though, it might be best leaving them out. Read the following sentence: “I ran down to the red door which opened into a wide, cold barn which was dark except for the small, wax candle in the centre.” It’s not TOO bad. At times though, especially when the pace is picking up, that looks cluttered. When you’re getting to action, strip back all those big adjectives. The same goes for adverbs; “I ran swiftly down to the door which hung limply. Opening it, I saw a candle burning brightly and faintly lighting the room.” Putting in too many adverbs is telling the reader: “you’re not smart enough to get what I mean. Therefore, I will spell out every action for you. IS THAT..OK…WITH YOU?” Readers, teachers in particular, don’t need your help. Try use something else to show verbs in action. It boils down to the old saying “show, don’t tell”. If you tell me he “ran hurriedly into class”, I get the point but frown on how babyish you treat me. If you say “Glen ran into the room; his bag crashing off the door and his books flying everywhere”, I know Glen was in a hurry. Either that or Glen is a nutjob. As for trying to say something, simple is fine in most cases. It gets painful reading exclaimed, replied, answered, shouted, muttered, murmured, screamed and announced after a while. Unless the person is actually doing these, ‘said’ is perfectly fine. Similar to above, by using these words you tell rather than shwo. By adding different points, you can empower the reader. Instead of saying ‘Glen announced’, try say ‘said Glen, his voice carrying to the far parts of the room’. At times, the word announced is fine; it’s short and we get it. But if you want your work to look less lazy, strive to cut out those little twists on said and embrace the simple form of talking.

6. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.

Not my strongest point as far as my own secondary school essays show, but worth a point in this note. As a younger writer, dialogue rarely crops up. This is normal. We are used to taking action over talking, guns over words, and explosions over conversation. But the pen is mightier than the the sword, or the tongue is in this case (that’s why I cut all my meals with my tongue…..OK, sorry, that was being a Richard). By the age of 15-16 though, we begin to appreciate the place of words in our stories. So do correctors and teachers. Why, you may ask? It’s simple really. A short piece of dialogue can explain the details of a situation far more sneakily than your own exposition. For instance, I may tell you “The school was flooded. All the classrooms were out of use and so the students had to crowd into the gymnasium for lessons”. However I could also do the following;

“What’s the rush, school doesn’t start for an hour”, said Richard.

“We need to get there early, our class if flooded, remember?”, said Glen.

“if our class is flooded why are we even going?” (notice here I can leave out the verb, due to the fact that we can tell who is talking)

“Lessons are in the gymnasium, I won’t be late!”

Peter, the boys’ father, broke in, “Will ye two Richards come on? I won’t wait around all day for ye two idiots.”

Sorry about that last part, as well as being ugly and violent; Peter is a terrible alcoholic. As ye can see, I got the same information across in both cases. Either is perfectly fine.However using dialogue we do have the added bonus of character building. Here we see Richard is forgetful and lazy. Glen is studious and on top of things. Peter is….well Peter doesn’t have much going for him does he? Good dialogue helps make your characters real and identifiable to the teacher. They stand out more, and go a long way towards making your grade a better one. Shorter dialogue is all the fashion now. Unless the point is for the speaker to be drawn out and boring, keep it snappy and charged with emotion.

7. Stay in character.

Nothing screams “I was out of ideas” more than betraying your characters. That doesn’t mean killing them off. By all means, kill those imaginary people (a quote from controversial child psychologist Kyle Malone). But as a story progresses we get a sense of what someone is. Even over a page or two we know who we’re dealing with. Don’t have some shy loser suddenly slam dunk a basketball or get the hot girl (I mean seriously if I’m not dunking a basketball there’s no way the other losers get to). Keep your characters..well..your characters. The only time it is excusable for someone to break character is when a)their whole personality was a ruse or b) they experience a traumatic event. I’m sure there’s other ways it can happen, but those stand out. If you have your protagonist wrestle a bear just for some action (and because you also hate grizzlies and all they stand for) then an examiner will know you’re a cheat. It’s be to tailor your action for your characters. Action can be an argument or a small scuffle. Not everybody has to storm Normandy or shoot Hitler (NB Hitler may actually have to shoot Hitler). The more realistic a character’s choices are in the face of adversity, the more likely a teacher will believe them and bump up your marks.

8. Avoid clichés, they’re as old as the bible itself.

Yes, we all do these too. In a short story, keep your vigilance up to make sure none of these slip in. In four-five pages you can make a good impression. In a novel a small cliché goes unnoticed, forgotten behind all the really good stuff. In a short story it stands out; it’s a blemish on your work and your credentials. A cliché doesn;t have to be an overused phrase. If your story is a short story on a boy who attends a magical school with two geeky friends…COME ON. It really needs to be original enough for short story. You only need like one event, so really you have no excuse if you throw in a cliché in the hope a proven track can please your corrector. You need something that wows your reader, something they haven’t seen before or something old in a different light. Original short story ideas always stand well with correctors, and guarantee higher marks.

9. You don’t need a twist

Twists are fine. They end up in a lot of short stories, a final joust to the reader and a lasting memory. It’s a good thing. But don’t throw one in for a two second shock effect if it destroys everything before it. A good story gets a good grade. But if it ends in a twist that shouldn’t be there…no. A wrong twist would be something like having someone being hit by a bus for no reason other than to add sadness to your piece. Or perhaps you will kill off half of a romance just to try make it gripping. Please refrain if it isn’t your original intention. If you get to the end of your work and decide there should be a twist, WARNING LIGHTS SHOULD BE GOING OFF. A twist should be something you decide on initially, and even then should be carefully considered. To sum up, a good twist should add to the piece, not take away from it and leave the corrector feeling sour.

10. Fill your plot holes

These are real deal breakers. If your plot doesn’t make sense, and the whole thing is like four pages, you’re doomed. A short story needs to anchor on a well-thought out plot. Why is Glen running back into that burning building? Why is Richard taking a scary route home from school for the first time? You can’t just throw in a fun plot for the sake of it; the thing has to fit together like a jigsaw. In a small snippet of time, it actually is difficult to make plot holes. That is why they’re so criminal. If peter decides to drive after alcohol, why is that? Is he mad? Is he in a rush? What makes Peter break the law? If the plot is consistent and self explanatory, the whole story writes itself a lot easier. It should flow when you read it. Your teacher or lecturer should never have to ask why this is happening. They should want to ask questions, but about the story itself, never about the design of it.

I might do more of these sometime, but for now, I hope these make your English answers a little easier in the coming academic year.