Crystal Clear

There’s a magical beach in Queensland where crystal-imbedded rocks are washed ashore. You can walk the long stretch of pale sand and find tiny emeralds and rubies, as well as boulder opal and geodes crammed with sparkling crystals. At sunset, wallabies come from the surrounding national park to stand before the waves and catch the evening breeze.

Such places set our imaginations on fire. They remind us why we create and write—to celebrate life and all of its flaws and wonders.

Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes I get caught up in yet another edit of a paragraph/scene/manuscript. Sometimes I forget to call my family, or be there for my friends, or just sit outside and breathe. But not today.

Today, in such a place, life is a gem.

How I write: broken bones

crutchesI recently dropped a chair on my little toe. The chair was fine, my toe not so much. After the immediate desire to scream and swoon had passed, I was left with an ugly, purple mushroom of a toe and an aching desire to watch the world burn (I get aggressive when injured).

If you’re wondering what the hell this has to do with how I write…well, I’m one of those people who sees a connection between what happens to their body and what’s going on in their life. Burn my leg—I’ve been a raging lunatic about something. Persistent colds—I’m mentally drained and my life is in disorder. It’s the Louise Hay way, I suppose.

The last time I had a foot injury (I sprained my ankle while falling into the ocean via an 8m rockwall), google gleefully summarised that my mishap was a physical manifestation of my refusal to move forward in my life.

Does this sound weird? Far-fetched? Maybe, but for me it had a ring of truth. I’d sprained my ankle at a time when I was miserable at work, not writing, and unable to find a way past an increasingly depressed outlook. So I left my job, wrote like crazy and worked on some self-respect.

It all sounds a bit drastic and daft. Who would uproot their life because they sprained their ankle? Of course it’s not as simple as that, but sometimes you need a trigger for self-reflection and change.

So when I broke my toe, I took it to mean a similar warning sign: I’d been neglecting some pretty important things in my life. One of them was, again, my writing. For a myriad of reasons, writing had taken a backseat, and while life sometimes demands this (and it’s okay if it does!), I had entered a cycle that could easily continue for a very long time if I refused to make some changes.

By the time the icepack came off, the laptop was powered up and I was working on a new production schedule for my writing. Part of that involved new writing prompts, an achievable daily word count, and configuring Scrivener to suit my redrafting needs. Within a few days I’d written my way out of a problematic scene that had bothered me for weeks and discovered new turning points for my redraft. It’s been consistent progress since then.

I mention all of this because my biggest writing breakthroughs come when I make room for change. And it doesn’t always have to be extreme. Quite often it’s the opposite. Things like moving my writing desk to a different part of the room; going to a new writing location each day for a week; walking more (so good for generating ideas); reading books that turn my beliefs on their head; meeting new people; volunteering; and dressing up to go out when I’m just going to sit in front of the laptop and eat marshmellows.

Changing your lifestyle even in tiny ways can clear the cobwebs, jolt you out of a rut and let fresh ideas flow. Trust me, it works.

Let’s just hope you don’t need to break bones to get your writing life in alignment.

Know your place

The suburb I live in is named after a pioneering family who ran cattle in the area from 1879 to the 1970s. The husband was a luckless blacksmith who came to Australia in the 1850s for the gold rush, stayed poor, and eventually ended up in Townsville with his wife and family. They set up a dairy farm and struggled to survive. Much of their land is now submerged after the city flooded it in building the local dam.

Knowing your place, as in where you currently live, offers surprisingly rich fodder literally right under your writing desk. Have you ever researched the history of your home, who built it, who the street or suburb is named after, and what they did that was deserving of such recognition? Give it a shot. What you learn can show up in unexpected places in your writing.

But once you’re done, I’d like you to look again at those street signs and suburb names, and ask about the silences they represent. Are any suburbs in your city named after women? Scientists? Humanitarians? Artists? What about Indigenous Peoples? You’ll be surprised by what is underrepresented or missing.

My suburb is Wulgurukaba country. They are saltwater people who have lived in this region for over 37,000 years (to put that into perspective, there were no humans living in England or America when the Wulgurukaba first settled here). There is 6,000 year old rock art only 15km from the city centre—it’s older than the Egyptian pyramids. The river I walk my dog beside every morning is the northern-most area where the Wulgurukaba people travelled during the changing seasons.

In the mid-1800s, pioneers trapped the Wulgurukaba at the base of the nearby mountain range and massacred them. It’s unknown how many families were murdered, but they died because the pioneers wanted the land, and the Wulgurukaba refused to leave their ancestral country.

smoking gun

Like much of Australia’s colonial history, the Indigenous story of this region is buried under silence. One has to dig deep or speak to a local Elder to know.

As writers, we can choose to see the silences in our daily lives. We can discover what is hidden, whether it is in place names, the news, in conversations, advertising or random interactions. And then we can  write about what we find.

Where you’re sitting right now is as good a place as any to start.

You’re going to be okay

No, really, you are. If you’re looking back at 2015 and thinking about how you could have used your writing time better, and are now staring down the barrel of 2016 with the determination that things will be different—good. The reality is things will be different. You have an entire year’s worth of more knowledge, experience and personal truth to back up your writing.

Let me share with you my path. I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I wrote my first book when I was sixteen. Then I wrote another book. I studied writing at university and then spent close to a decade in various marketing and editing roles. I started and stopped writing perhaps thirty books of varying lengths between 10,000 and 50,000 words. In 2014, I turned my back on a successful marketing career in order to write full time. I wrote another book. At the start of 2015, I moved interstate to live with family so that I could actually afford to write full time. I worked furiously on the redraft. A few months after that, I had to go back to work because, well, money. The writing stopped. Then I decided to return to university—not because the giant plunge into writing full time was a failure, but because I knew the knowledge and experience of a new path will enrich my writing. And it already has. Now that uni is done for the year, I am back full circle to writing like crazy.

The point is, who I was at the start of 2015 is different to who I am now. If you look back on 2015, you’ll find change and growth, too. And you’ll find more success with your writing than you give yourself credit for.

But if you’re anything like me and focus sharply on the lost opportunities, missteps and writing massacres, maybe a little bit of time in 2016 needs to be spent filling up a writing jar.

The Writing Jar

happiness jar

The concept is no different to a happiness jar, only that you fill the jar with your writing joys and successes. Get yourself some coloured scraps of paper (I love the 2.5cm x 2.5cm multi-coloured stickynotes), and each time you have a positive moment with your writing, you mark the date, describe the moment, and pop it in the jar.

Perhaps you have a breakthrough with a troublesome character—in it goes. Maybe it’s been a week since you last wrote and you scraped in 15mins during your lunchbreak—that success deserves to go in, too. The time spent skyping a friend so that you could work on your writing projects together even though you live in different cities—it needs acknowledging. Each moment, day, week and month of writing merits recognition. Because writing is hard and lonely work, and it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come.

Before you know it, you’ll have a jar brimming with success and writing happiness. You can look at those notes when the bleak days inevitably arise. They’ll be your inspiration and solace.

And perhaps you’ll realise that if you’d started taking notes earlier, you’d have a jar of writing happiness for 2015, too.

The long silence

Yep, it’s been some time since you last heard from me. Not because I haven’t been writing—there’s been lots of revision and writing and outlining new projects—but because it’s been a big year with highs and lows, and sometimes it’s better to turn the focus inwards than express everything to the world.

Right now I’m looking with excitement at cloudy skies. The summer here has already been long; the front yard is scorched to bare, cracked earth, the local river is running dry, and we’ve been on water restrictions for months. But the chances of rain for Christmas are looking pretty good, and for the first time in a decade, all of the family will be together for the festivities.

The start of this year saw me determined to have my writing take centre stage in my life, only for it to be nudged aside in the face of moving interstate, a return to study, changing jobs, a focus on mental health, and the death of an incredible woman, my grandmother. And yet, writing has always been there, burbling in the background, and as I look over my work and my journal, I can see a year of breakthroughs and growth, and maybe just a little bit more confidence.

As the year draws to a close and the inevitable list of writing goals start to emerge for 2016, I ask that you be kind to yourself, be honest about your ability to achieve what you set out to do next year, and remember to exercise—a healthy body leads to a healthy soul and a fruitful, creative mind.

Have a wonderful holiday season and very writerly new year.

Inspirational quotes for writers

book2Anyone who has experienced a mid-year writing slump knows that a little bit of inspiration can be all it takes to keep going. So here are fifteen of my favourite quotes to help stir the creative soul.

1.) ‘The scariest moment is always just before you start.’ Stephen King

2.) ‘Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.” Rita Mae Brown

3.) ‘Don’t quit—return home to your writing.’ Elizabeth Gilbert

4.) ‘Mistakes are the portals of discovery.’ James Joyce

5.) ‘Asking “Why?” can lead to understanding. Asking “Why not?” can lead to breakthroughs.’ Daniel Pink

6.) ‘Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.’ Cyril Connolly

7.) ‘The world is but a canvas to the imagination.’ Henry David Thoreau

8.) ‘When I am writing, I am doing the thing I was meant to do.’ Anne Sexton

9.) ‘Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.’ John Steinbeck

10.) ‘Have no fear of perfection—you’ll never reach it.’ Salvadore Dali

11.) ‘I write to take all the terror and tragedy and comedy and banality of life and wrestle it into something I can understand.’ Kathleen Caron

12.) ‘Creativity is an act of defiance.’ Twyla Tharp

13.) ‘You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’ Jodi Picoult

14.) ‘It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’ J.K. Rowling

15.) ‘I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart.’ Vincent van Gogh

beach3

I don’t ask for help

Help and support signpost

I was seventeen when I drove my car sideways through a sugarcane field. The fault was all mine—I’d driven too fast around a corner on a dark and wet country road while tired after a long shift at the local fast food restaurant. One small overcorrection left me fishtailing across the road and down the embankment. Then the car bucked and tilted onto two wheels before the 5m high sugarcane suddenly brought everything to a halt, providing a soft, green cushion that gently tumbled the car back onto all fours.

I was fortunate to be alive. The only injury I had was a tiny cut to my cheek courtesy of a cane frond that had come in through the driver’s side window. But in the aftermath, all I could think about was how Mum would yell and offer me a cup of tea, and how Dad would scrub his hands over his face, unable to speak. I knew I’d be teased mercilessly at school, and that my sister and brother would lord it over me with their lovely, undented cars and pristine driving records.

So when the headlights from another car came into view, I did the only thing that made sense—I turned off my lights and hunkered out of sight.

It was only after the car had gone safely past the corner that I thought perhaps I’d made a mistake. Mobile reception didn’t exist in the area and no one knew of my predicament. So I sat there in the dark, contemplating my life choices, until the next car came along almost an hour later and I sheepishly caught a ride home.

I’d like to say that the accident taught me a great life lesson. But I’ll wait until I’m overwhelmed with exhaustion and about to press delete on a year’s worth of writing before I begrudgingly raise my hand.

Because I’m still the kid who’d rather sit in a banged up car in the middle of a sugarcane field than ask for help.

Reading out loud

A screenwriter friend recently suggested I read my manuscript out loud. There are plenty of reasons why this is to a writer’s benefit: you can pick up on pacing issues, improve dialogue, fix up overly-long sentences and remove redundant description. Admittedly, my friend made this great suggestion weeks ago, so I should explain my hesitation.

freaked outI have an issue with reading things out loud. It doesn’t matter if I’m reading a scene from my manuscript or a sarcastic quote from a fortune cookie. My brain seems to short circuit, my eyes lose focus and my mouth creates new words. With my Melbourne writers group, I even have to lie down on the floor with my feet propped up while I read out my piece for workshopping. I’d like to think it’s a classic fear of public speaking, but I commit verbal massacres when alone, too.

Knowing my discomfit, my friend suggested I record my readings. It was a fair idea, as there’s little chance I’d be able to read aloud and notice flaws in my work at the same time.

So a few days ago I tapped the voice recording app on my phone and read out a scene. The result was as expected—a messy, word-tripping disaster from someone who was apparently drunk and confused. Even the dog appeared startled.

But listening to the recording revealed more than my ego-scarring incoherence. Repetition, changes in pace and quirks in dialogue leapt out of the ramblings. So too a stronger feel for the characters and interesting plot points I had previously ignored.

I have since gone back and made some changes. The scene now feels stronger and progresses the story in a satisfying way.

Will I record any more of the manuscript in the future? Although it makes me squirm, the answer is yes. It seems silly not to when the results speak for themselves (pun intended).

And if over time it helps me sound less like a beer-swilling pirate, then that’s just a bonus.

Dogs are gloriously disgusting

The beach at Chelsea, in Victoria, is a secret gem. Pale white sand, surprisingly turquoise water and thunderclouds on the horizon are the norm. It could be a 10˚C day and Chelsea’s beach could fool you into thinking you were on a tropical island watching a summer storm roll past.

Chelsea on a 10C day.

Chelsea on a 10C day.

Ahh, summer!

Ahh, summer!

Jellyfish the size of dinner plates wash ashore most mornings. Their stinging cells are negligible to all but the tiniest of fish, and by the time they hit the beach, they’re harmless. Most beachwalkers avoid them anyway, so too their dogs who enjoy the freedom of an off-lead outing.

Sheldon, however, is an exception. A handsome Labrador with a distinguished grey muzzle and jaunty tail, Sheldon will examine each and every jellyfish. He looks for The One—a jellyfish whose edges have been crusted by the sun, whose solid bulbous centre has turned slightly to mush. To this chosen one, he gives a lick and a gentle nibble on the side (just to be sure), before he cocks his leg and continues on his explorations.

It’s only half an hour later when the debacle begins. On our return along the beach, Sheldon, eyes bright and tongue lolling, will hunt out that special jellyfish. It has been sitting in the sun, seasoning, if you will.

It’s clear the moment he’s found it. His muscles seem to loosen, his very bones turn to liquid, and he flops down onto the jellyfish shoulder-first. Then comes the joyful rolling, the happy wriggling and victorious bark as the jellyfish turns to slush.

Sheldon eventually rises, covered in gloop and his own urine.

I give an embarrassed shrug to horrified onlookers, but I don’t stop him. A bucket, shampoo and towel are waiting for us beside the back door at home.

But Sheldon has one more act in this daily show. He snuffles the sand and digs out the dirtiest, smelliest remnant of the jellyfish.

And then he eats it.

I don’t know of any other dog who pees on jellyfish, rolls on them and then eats them. But his simple joy is one of the many reasons I cherish him.

My love requires no seasoning.

Don't judge...I'm awesome.

Don’t judge…I’m awesome.