When do you sacrifice passion for production?

I have worked on my redraft for months now, exploring new paths, rewriting old chapters, and discovering new aspects of myself in the process. I have done my best to show up and write as often as possible and to commit to lofty goals that will one day hopefully see me as a full time writer.

And yet, when I read my work, I can hear a hollowness in my characters’ words and a lack of colour in my world. Authenticity is missing, and no matter how many times I delete and try again, I just can’t seem to find it. Compounding this is the guilt I feel for not posting here often enough, for not commenting on my favourite blogs, for not staying in touch with my writerly mates.

I’m desperate to complete this draft and send it out into the world and find some readers who like what I do…and I think that’s where the problem lies.

quote2We live in a society where a writer’s success is predicated on bestsellers, money and fame. According to the myriad of blogs, books and websites out there, a true writer needs to write every day, post on their twitter/facebook/blog/whatever every second day, comment on other writers’ social media every other day, network at every festival and con they can get to, and generally tell the world that they’re the next best thing…without being annoying about it. Do all that, and you might enjoy a modicum of success.

It’s rubbish.

A writer needs to hold onto their passion for writing. You lose your passion, you’re just working another shitty day job. And what’s the point of that?

So I’m going to spend my precious writing time just focussing on the fact that I love to write. It is a stabilising, joyful force in my life. I get to live in two worlds. I get to discover words like ‘pyknic’ and ‘sabrage’ and I get to flood my sentences with my friend, the gerund. I get to live a life I find fulfilling.

It’s my version of writerly success.

5 ways to get your writerly groove back

computer1Suffice to say, taking a long stint away from writing makes it extremely daunting when you finally decide it’s time to get back into it.

It’s been a little while since I last worked on my manuscript, but here’s how I’ve started dragging myself out of the mire.

Visualise yourself writing

If an activity is visualised often enough, your subconscious will believe it is a part of your real life. So be specific and involve the senses. Imagine the tap of the keyboard, the creak of your chair as you lean forward, the coolness of the floorboards under your feet. Remember the warm rush in your mind as the words flow out and the satisfaction you feel as a blank page is transformed. Imagine yourself entirely in that moment, with none of the guilt or panic you feel at not actually being at your desk. And do it often. When you’re finally ready to work on the manuscript, it won’t feel so alien or overwhelming.

Don’t set goals on your first day back

Face it, you’re going to be pretty emotional. There’ll be the relief of finally writing again, plus the anxiety of having wasted so much time. Don’t pressure yourself by committing to some sort of grand production schedule or list of tasks that will get you back on track. Calm down. You’ll be okay. Just write.

Start with something simple

computer2Whatever you write on your first day will probably be hard work. It’ll take twice as long to write half as much, and it likely won’t be your finest achievement. So start on something you won’t have to fight with. If setting is your strength, focus on that. If you have a clear idea of how two characters are going to interact, get writing. But don’t start on a critical, vague or difficult scene—that’s how you end up hiding under the bed with a tub of ice cream.

Accept that it won’t be easy

You’re going to struggle, and writer’s guilt seems to hit whether you’re writing or not. So be kind, acknowledge all of the negative thoughts, and then move on.

Celebrate the small successes

Managed to write a sentence, paragraph or page? It’s more than you’ve written in eons! Revel in it and ignore all of the imperfections. Follow it up with a second day of writing, and a third, fourth, etc. Get some momentum and allow yourself to enjoy the process. You’re a writer once more.

Racist jokes

Earlier this week, I was in a department store torturing myself by browsing the racks of summer dresses (none of which I could afford to buy). Behind the counter were four young salespeople, all clearly friends, one of whom was Aboriginal. The store was surprisingly quiet, and so it was easy to overhear their conversation which revolved around a new range of skirts. When asked her opinion of a particularly vibrant yellow piece, one of the saleswomen indicated at her Aboriginal colleague and said, ‘There’s already too much colour here.’

They all laughed, even the woman who was the punchline, but I felt a vague sort of discomfort. It was obviously a racist joke. But was it somehow less offensive because the person being disrespected found it funny?

racismThe reality is that racism isn’t only committed by hateful extremists on the shady edges of society. It’s committed by everyday folk who think they are excluded because they are comfortable to surround themselves with people of other races. It’s done by people who couch their statements with ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ and then launch into something incredibly offensive and belligerent. And it’s perpetuated by people who believe that humour somehow precludes them from acknowledging that what they are saying is hurtful and damaging.

I’ve told enough racist jokes myself, believing it didn’t matter because my best friend is Jewish, my long-term housemate Korean, and some of my oldest friends Aboriginal, Fijian and Samoan. But racist jokes are an insidious way of dehumanising another person, and frankly I want to be better than that.

I hope we all can be better than that.

5 Tips for Surviving A Cyclone

Growing up, I got to experience the eye of a cyclone travelling right over our tiny coastal town. I remember building a mattress fort with my twin and listening for hours as the wind howled through the louvres and rain pummelled the side of the house. When the eye finally swept over us and we all headed outside, there was something magical about the dead calm, dripping palm fronds and clear night sky. Ten minutes later, the wind roared back to life and we rushed for safety.

Ingrid_TMO_2005066_lrgNow, going outside at any time during a cyclone makes you a dumbass in the eyes of the authorities, but it’s also kinda a prerequisite for being a local. As is stocking up on beer, chips and chocolate instead of water, batteries and baked beans.

Tropical Cyclone Marcia is about to hit the Queensland coast, bringing with it 260km/hr winds and flooding rain. So as a newly-returned local to these parts, I feel it is my duty to share some key pointers I’ve learnt should you find yourself in the path of a cyclone:

1) Eating all of the ice cream is a fiscally mature response to the threat of power failure.

2) Throwing the trampoline into the pool to stop it from flying away will not be your brightest idea.

3) Putting your pets in a room will keep them safe, but those stains are never coming out of the carpet.

4) If the glass windows begin bowing and flexing from the wind, close the curtains and pretend you saw nothing.

5) If you lose the roof, hide under a mattress and hope it wasn’t the one your mate Wozza threw up on two weeks ago.

Cyclone Marcia isn’t going to hit my town but my twin, cousins and their families are in the direct path. Like true locals, they’re resentfully clearing their yards, securing fly-away items and checking over their beer and chips stash.

Stay safe, everyone, and keep your sense of humour. xx

Why dogs are awesome writing buddies

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There’s a long history of famous authors and their beloved pets. Mark Twain snuck a kitten into his room during his year-long stint at a sanatorium. Virginia Woolf is quoted saying that dogs bring out the playful side of life. William S Burroughs’ last journal entry was about his four beloved cats and the great healing capacity for love they engendered.

Personally, I find dogs and cats equally wonderful—dogs because they look at you like you’re the centre of the universe, and cats because they don’t.

Four years ago I adopted a stray Labrador called Sheldon. He’s both intelligent and socially inept, just like his namesake on The Big Bang Theory. Hide a treat in his vicinity, and there is no puzzle toy, bag or piece of furniture he won’t work his way through to get to it. Take him on a new walking route and he’ll remember it perfectly for next time.

IMG_3080Sheldon has a few issues, of course—shopping trolleys, dogs on leads and motorbikes are creatures deserving extreme suspicion. Hats are inappropriate attire no matter the occasion and sock-wearing feet are too delicious to pass up.

As for my writing, well, Sheldon plays a key part. He’s my early morning alarm clock by way of a wet nose on the cheek and some exuberant pouncing on the bed. We’re generally on the pavement by the time dawn hits the nearby mountains.

There’s plenty of info out there about how going for a walk is excellent for creativity. I’m a big adherent, and even more so for a dawn walk. Photographers call this time the magic hour. It’s when the air is crisper, the birds louder, the colours and scents more vibrant. By the time we’re back home, I’m buzzing with ideas and ready for a decent writing session. Sheldon will generally wedge himself under the chair or beside the window in preparation for some serious napping.

After about an hour, I’m reminded that it’s time for breakfast by way of a paw on my leg and soulful, sad eyes. I’ll take advantage of the offered break, feed us both, and then it’s back to work—me writing, him napping and giving me the occasional nudge for a pat.

Multiple studies in the past few years have shown that patting and talking to dogs results in lower blood pressure. As a writer who spends way too much time worrying, my being able to give my pup a good rub is cheap therapy. I have a habit of talking to myself while writing, too, and Sheldon offers great advice by way of a grumble or snore. Coffee breaks are admittedly a time when I come up with ridiculous names for him, like ‘Magical Mister Gruff’ or ‘Sleepy Bun Bun’. I slide back to the desk afterwards feeling a bit better about life.

On the days when the writing is not happening and the biscuit tin beckons, he’s my go-to-guy. Whether he’s rolling in wet grass, barking at butterflies or having fluff unexpectedly explode out of a much-loved toy, his exuberance and curiosity for life are reminders of why I write. The world is full of amazing things to explore and experience, and dogs take it upon themselves to show us. That’s why I count on Sheldon as my writing buddy. If you have a hound, you’ll be able to count on them, too.

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Five tips to fight bland writing

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For the past week, my writing has been somewhat uninspired. I’m showing up every day and putting in the hours but at the end of each session, I read the new material and get a profound sense of ‘blah’.

So instead of proclaiming war via the delete button, I spent yesterday mining through my writing diary (all fifteen years of it) for ways I have previously put the fire back into my writing. Here are five of my favourite tips.

Cut out the waffle

Make sentences punchy by getting rid of the fluff. I love a good adverb, but why write ‘she quickly grabbed’ when you can say ‘she seized/pinched/hauled’?  Hunt down the words ending in ‘ly’ and give them a good drubbing.

Similarly, words like ‘kind of’, ‘can try’, ‘almost’ and ‘somewhat’ need to go. Decisive language is much more compelling.

Mix up the sentence lengths

I have a habit of writing long (like, really long) sentences. In the past, I have set myself the challenge of making every third sentence no longer than five or six words. This is particularly helpful when redrafting. I’ll pull out one page, shorten the sentences and then compare the pace of that page to those surrounding it. Obviously, you don’t need to be dogmatic. You don’t need to only shorten every third sentence, but it is a helpful exercise on how to quicken the pace.

Make friends with the thesaurus

Instead of saying ‘She walked across the room’, try ‘She prowled/scuttled/inched’. Personally, I love my thesaurus book—there’s something wonderful about opening a random page and making use of whatever I find there. The only caution is to not go overboard, as sometimes simplicity is best. Plus you can overuse your new words, and trust me, readers are going to notice when you’ve used ‘scuttled’ three times in a chapter.

Write flash fiction

I admire people who write flash fiction. It’s damn hard. You have to tell an entire story in a few short paragraphs, and achieve it by showing, not telling. The key, I’ve found, is to focus on one powerful image, launch straight into the action, strip away a heap of backstory and include story questions that keep the reader guessing until the end. By the time you’ve completed the piece, you’re buzzing with creativity and ready to get back to that bigger project.

Get emotional

As many of my readers will know, I spent the last eight or so years engaged in corporate writing. I got pretty good at using dry, generic language like ‘world leading’, ‘innovative’, ‘comprehensive range’ and ‘customer solutions’. These words are used so much in our everyday lives that they have lost any meaning.

So find ways to influence the reader’s emotions. Instead of ‘old’ try ‘stale’ or ‘threadbare’. Instead of ‘fat’, try ‘bulbous’ or ‘stout’. Emotive words let you guide the reader towards a positive or negative response. For example, ‘statuesque’ gives a positive impression of ‘tall’ whereas ‘looming’ has negative connotations. Have fun with it.

For me, I’ll be giving the flash fiction a shot today. I have a particular image stuck in my head that has nothing to do with my novel. I’ll immerse myself in it and then hopefully come out refreshed and ready to get back to redrafting.

I hope these tips are helpful for you, too.

February Challenge

Following last week’s almost-decision to give up my dream of full time writing, I’ve been thinking about why I lack the belief that I can have a successful writing career. Despite quitting my corporate job, moving interstate and turning my back on a new profession—all so that writing remains my first priority—I can’t shake the fear that my writing dreams will never be a reality.

So I’ve set myself a February Challenge—to write something positive every day about my writing life. An affirmation, if you will. Today’s is ‘I am grateful and thankful to be living out my passion as a writer.’

I have it on a sticky note above my table so that I can keep looking at it throughout the day. Tomorrow, I’ll put a new affirmation beside it, and then another and another until I have 28 positive thoughts, compliments and affirmations stuck to the wall.

My hope is that some of that positivity will seep in and I can get onto the best part of being a writer—actually writing!

It sounds a bit egotistical covering my wall with pep talks and compliments, but if I don’t truly believe in my writing aspirations, who will?

A dream and a sure thing

I can see myself writing every day from now until my deathbed. Genetically I have a good shot at that being in my nineties, so long as I respect my body, brain and soul. I can also see myself as a published writer, writing the stories I want to read as opposed to the corporate writing that has been my life for the past eight or so years. But right now, being a published writer is a dream rather than a reality, and it’s a scary thing to structure my life around.

A few days ago, I got offered a place at university for a degree I have been interested in since I was a teenager. Over 4000 people applied for this course, and I was one of 150 people to get in. In the excitement, I accepted. In four short years, I would be assured a job in an industry with global reach, where every day was different, where my experiences would enrich my writing, and where I could make a difference every day to people who were likely having the worst day of their lives.

And yet, for the past few days, I have been inconsolable. I have bawled my eyes out at being bitten by a mosquito, for stubbing my toe, for seeing a cute puppy on instagram. A constant ball of anxiety churns in my guts and I am driving my family and friends mental with varying levels of hysteria.

Despite getting into a course I have wanted to do for more than fifteen years, I have to acknowledge one incontrovertible truth.

I have made a mistake.

If all I want to do is write, why would I commit to a new career that could only draw me away from writing? There is only one answer: because it is safe.

I am in constant fear that the sacrifices I have made for writing will be for nothing. I worry I have many more sacrifices to make for something that may never happen. I feel my writing is not good enough to be published. And I fear that no one will like what I have to say.

But the option of a safer, more comfortable life lies before me and I cannot take it. I cannot bear the thought of hiding behind a career in a respected industry, where it doesn’t matter whether I chase my dream of writing.

So today I withdrew from the course, and now I feel weepy because of a wholly different reason:

I am back on the right path.

Writers groups

Last night, I went to the local fantasy and sci fi writers group’s first session of the year. They seem like a great bunch of people, keen to chat about what they know about the craft and where they’re at with their own projects. That being said, I left the session feeling frustrated rather than inspired.

This surprises me, because there is nothing better than being around like-minded people, as I discovered with my beloved Melbourne writers group, whom I’m keeping in touch with via skype.

It’s led me to realise that I need not just a writers group that discusses the craft of writing, but a critique group that evaluates each other’s work and holds them accountable. I also enjoy structure, in that the session is planned out with specific activities that run for a controlled amount of time, plus someone who monitors the meeting and ensures that everyone gets their fair share of air time.

I think there are certain things that can destroy a writers group – members who want different things, an overbearing attendee who hijacks the proceedings, disrespect towards the work of other people in the group, and an inability to reel in the tangents that inevitably happen in a group of passionate writers.

I’ll give this group another shot. It’s always difficult when joining an established writers group, and like I said, these people are good folk.

No doubt I’ll let you know how it all pans out.

Perspective

Today is the first day in my new home. It’s nestled at the base of a mountain range and is only a few short kilometres from the beach. The sound of lorikeets, peacocks and horses come from the paddock beyond the back fence, and a beautiful, brindled hound called Thor gambols through the grass with my own pooch.

It’s also ridiculously hot, with humidity so thick that your lungs feel stodgy. Mosquitos bomb-dive you day and night, and the ground constantly squelches underfoot. Only a few plants survive in the backyard, not because of neglect but because the combination of heat and clay soil is utterly unforgiving. After 8am, the biting sun keeps you from going outside, so you put on the TV only to get warnings of dengue fever, river-borne viruses and cyclones.

The reality is that each place we live in is a blend of inspiration and compromise. I’m just grateful that all of these experiences can end up on the page and enrich my work.