Plot bunnies

They came a-visiting today.

They bounced all over the place, dropping unwanted characters and weird tangents all over my redraft. One plot bunny in particular was drunk.

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Now I find myself cleaning up the mess. My favourite scene is broken, another a bit singed. And a little lass—who has murder and mayhem in her liquid brown eyes—has decided she likes it here. I guess she’ll stay.

As for the other bunnies, they’ve moved on.

No doubt they’re just down the street, already gambolling in someone else’s writing.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

bland

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.

Ending the year on a high

Kelly's a lefty

I’ll point out the obvious by saying the festive season is full of distractions. It’s a time when most things are set aside for family, friends and food. It’s a great time of year but when your goal is to be a published writer, putting your work on hold is a tough ask.

Despite a busy year of writing, I am approaching the end of 2014 with a bit of anxiety. Not because I haven’t done enough; it’s because I fear the break in momentum will result in a full scale cessation of writing. It’s happened before. There have been times when I haven’t written a word for nigh on eight months. I have fair reason to be worried.

That’s why, with ten days left in 2014, I’ve decided to see out the year by writing 20,000 words. That’s a measly 2,000 words a day. Sounds doable. In truth, it feels like a big task with all of the holiday activities going on in the background (did I mention I’m also currently packing up my house for the move to Queensland?).

Nonetheless, committing to a short, time-specific goal feels like a crucial step for me. What better way to see in the new year than to see out the old with an explosion of words on the page? I’ll let you know how I go.

How will you see out 2014?

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?

It takes sacrifice to be a writer

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Earlier in the year, I was a steaming hot mess. I despised my job in marketing, suffered migraines every couple of days, forgot what it meant to be happy, and discovered that I could eat a whole pizza on my own and still have room for dessert. And every night I woke up in the wee hours, staring at the ceiling and acknowledging yet another day where I had not worked on my novel.

Now, before you heave a sigh and take off in search of a more upbeat blog on the writerly life, let me tell you what changed.

I decided to be a novelist.

In truth, I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I’ve completed two fantasy manuscripts and have started dozens more that will probably never be finished. I’m a member of various writers associations, spent three years as the editor of a leading industry magazine, have a degree in writing, done numerous writing short courses, have a few published short stories, written countless press releases and articles, and am part of a very healthy monthly writers group.

In spite of all that, a few months ago I had to face the grim truth I was not the writer I ached to be. Why? Because in the span of a year, I had written perhaps 5,000 words on my own projects. The writing I was doing was for my day job—dry articles on vehicle suspension, replacement differentials and engineering developments. It was soul-sucking stuff for someone whose mind wanders the clouds, dreaming of one day being a full-time fantasy novelist.

After months and months of staring at the ceiling, I knew I had to make a choice. Either become a full time novelist or don’t.

I chose to be a novelist.

It meant removing the excuses I had created in order to avoid novel writing—excuses I had created because I was scared. They weren’t the small excuses, either, like not having a comfortable chair to sit on or enough time in the day to show up at the desk. These excuses revolved around a job that sapped my creativity, a worksite that affected my health, the demands of friends and family, financial struggles and my mental wellbeing.

So I quit my job—with no other job to go to. I removed people from my life who did not support my writing goals. And I sat alone in a quiet house for months with nothing but my laptop, a snoring Labrador and my shaky resolve.

It’s been the most important decision of my life so far.

Since quitting my job in August, I’ve written the first draft of my third book, and am now working on the redraft. In the new year I will be taking my dog, my worldly possessions and myself out of Melbourne and up to sunny Queensland, where I will live with family for a while and find some sort of part time job that covers the bills and lets me focus on novel writing. I expect that some people won’t understand why I’ve thrown aside a promising career and a decent life in Melbourne. I suspect some will call me foolish for choosing to be novel writer when I don’t have a single published novel to my name. And I know others will think I’m arrogant and egotistical for proclaiming myself a writer.

But I’m happy. I write novels because there is nothing else I want to do, no other form of writing I want to write, and no other way to live my life.

I know I am fortunate to have been able to quit paid work for a few months in order to write—most people don’t have that luxury. But every writer has to make sacrifices, whether it is time with family and friends, social outings, sleep and sleep-ins, hobbies, TV and housework (though I don’t view giving up the latter as a particularly onerous sacrifice).

It’s a reality writers expect because the alternative is unacceptable.

What have you sacrificed for your writing?