January in review

Last month I wrote close to 15,000 words on the redraft – considering how busy January was with non-writing commitments, I’m thrilled about it. The manuscript itself, however, grew by only 33 words.

Yep. 33 words.

Whole new scenes and chapters were written, and old ones lovingly scrapped. Instead of feeling terrified at having removed complete chapters and characters from the manuscript, I’m feeling pretty chuffed to find that the manuscript has more depth, like I’m putting flesh on bones. February promises to be a similar process.

Technically, I’m on draft three of this manuscript. Draft two involved a lot of messing around and not being quite sure what I wanted the manuscript to say. I learnt a lot.

I find redrafting to be very slow. The flurry of getting words on the page isn’t there like it was in the first draft. I have a daily word count, one that’s quite small, and sometimes I don’t make it. For February, I might explore setting a daily hour count, instead.

I start back at university in three weeks with a full time load of subjects involving anthropology, archaeology and First Nations. I’m excited by what I’ll learn, but in the meantime, I’ve got three weeks where all of my mental focus can be directed at the redraft.

I’ll let you know how I go.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Redrafting: what I’ve learnt so far

The thrill of completing the first draft is a heady one. I remember dancing around the front lawn and babbling to friends and family for almost a week about how amazing it was to have finally reached the end of this manuscript. Because in truth, this manuscript has existed in various forms for the last ten years—started on, abandoned, rewritten, ignored, deleted, restarted, despised, adored, gutted and reborn until that very first kernel of an idea is unrecognisable in the finished (hah!) work.

Having stepped away from it for a few weeks and gorged myself on books, blogs and beloved authors, I returned to the manuscript in October feeling ready for anything. I printed out the manuscript, read it through and knew that the bones were good. The direction of the story made sense. What a relief!

Then it was time to acknowledge what needed work. In September, I was fortunate to undertake a spec fic masterclass through Writers Victoria with Aussie writer Marianne de Pierres. The masterclass focused on narrative drive and world building, and I came away armed with the knowledge that my manuscript could do with a bit more of both—thanks, Marianne!

Upon reading the complete manuscript, however, I realised that perhaps I had been a bit naïve about the task at hand. Of the two main characters, one seriously lacked motivation and narrative drive. By that, I mean I could not answer the questions ‘What does he want?’ and ‘What are the consequences of him not getting that?’ They’re kind of important story questions.

Immediately, I set to work. I read multiple books and excerpts about character development, mined the net for gems and set up a lengthy questionnaire to which I diligently came up with the answers regarding who my main character was and why he was that way. Then I did the same for my other main character. Then the two key sub-characters.

Feeling good about myself, I returned to the manuscript and redrafted the first three chapters (my manuscript had started in the wrong place, so the first 15,000 words were to be completely new… but that’s another matter).

Reaching the end of the third chapter, something felt wrong. Yes, I knew the characters intimately now, knew their pasts, their families, their motivations, who they hate and love, all their wants and whys and wherefores.

But I didn’t really know where they were or what was going on around them and how that would affect their adventures. Or, at least, I didn’t know enough to carry me through the redraft. Time for world building.

Now, anyone who has built their own world knows it’s not simply about drawing a map and proclaiming the existence of a kingdom/empire/province/planet. World building is about the physical landscape, countries, cultures, religion, politics, history, agriculture, magic, trade, food, city life, rural life, and a myriad of other things. Plus the consequences of these things. For example, perhaps there are no birds in your world. Do insects have run of the place? Are there new apex predators like spiders or aphids? How does this affect everyday life? As the writer, you have to know the answers.

My manuscript involves four kingdoms—a main character comes from one kingdom, a threat comes from another, the story begins in a third kingdom, and 90% of the story takes place in the fourth kingdom. It would be easy to concentrate on the fourth kingdom and rely on peripheral knowledge for the rest. But my manuscript will suffer for it, and I’m pretty sure readers will catch me out on my laziness.

I headed to the hallowed Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) website (www.sfwa.org) and took advantage of their very comprehensive set of world building questions. Do yourself a favour and give it a shot.

It took almost three weeks of full time work to discover and explore my four kingdoms. Now, you might think over a hundred hours of world building is excessive. It isn’t. I could probably do more work on it, and as I get further along the redraft, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I’ll do. If you want your world to ring true, you have to know it intimately—well beyond anything the reader will ever know. It’s exhausting and time consuming but invigorating, too.

Having created a newly complex world, I then went back to the characters and re-did the questionnaires. Why? Because their culture, history and landscape informs who they are in the manuscript.

I’m now back on the manuscript itself, armed with the knowledge gained from all of this background work. In a nutshell, here are the key pointers I’ve discovered since starting the redraft:

  • Step away from your manuscript once the first draft is complete. Give yourself a few weeks to relax and let new ideas germinate.
  • Read the whole manuscript. I recommend printing it out as you can put notes in the margins about things that need to be addressed later on.
  • Do not line edit! The second draft is not about going line by line and creating beautiful sentences. It’s about the wholesale slaughter of scenes and characters, worlds and plots. You have to be merciless and inventive on a macro level. Pretty words are for the third draft, or fourth, or fifth (you get the idea).
  • Create a comprehensive and complex world. Don’t be lazy. Take the time to know your world in ways that no one else ever will.
  • Revisit your characters and analyse their motivations and who they are. Know them intimately. Again, laziness will kill the manuscript.
  • Be fearless. Redrafting is hard work, and a lot of it never shows up on the page.

I admire writers who do the development work before writing the first draft. Perhaps it saves them time in the redrafting stages. Obviously I’m not geared like that and the benefits to me are obvious. I’ve fallen in love with my characters and world all over again.

And I cannot wait to make them suffer.

What have you discovered in the redrafting process?