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.

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.

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

IMG_4883

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.

IMG_3245

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.

Goals vs Plans

Halfway into my goal of writing 20,000 words by the end of the year, I have to admit that I am on track only because I’ve had one stellar day of writing. I’ve had two days where I didn’t write at all, and another day where the writing was so stilted that I wrote over it the next day. Instead of feeling pumped by my self-imposed ten day challenge, I’m left feeling a bit directionless. Why?

This morning I realised the obvious—a goal without a plan is like putting a wish in a bottle, tossing it into the ocean and expecting the universe to provide. Which of course it doesn’t.

So for the remaining days of December, I’m giving the time-honoured SMART system a shot. Each day is planned out with specific times allocated for writing. Word and scene targets have been set, as well as contingencies for if I go below or beyond those targets. I’m feeling committed to the plan, and the excitement of having a big finish to 2014 is back.

I have a busy day today, so I’d best get cracking.