5 Lessons I learnt from ‘Winning’ Nano

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On my forth attempt, I have succeeded in a long held dream of completing Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) for the first time.  (Here is my post about why I would attempt such a thing)

Before this year I didn’t even bother aiming for 50K, I kept my goals modest because 50K just seemed impossible.  But after four years of a mostly daily writing habit,  I was ready for the challenge. And at about 8pm on the 30th of November, I ticked over to the mighty 50K.

It was a great month.  A story that had been stewing in my head for most of 2018 was finally given a chance to be.  There were twists that I didn’t see coming, and characters that I grew to love.

And there were lessons I learnt along the way.

Don’t be competitive

The first day of November I had the almost unheard of opportunity of sitting in cafe for two hours to write.  This was after already waking at 6am and writing for a good hour and a half before the kids woke up.  So I started Nano with a 1K lead, and was excited for the month ahead.

But as I followed people on Social media, I was surprised to find I was the middle of the pack.  There were people aiming for 70K, even people who got to the 50K by the fifteenth of the month.  It was easy to feel like my ‘success’ wasn’t all that impressive after all.

And of course there were also those who struggled to hit the 1667 words per day, who felt like giving up, or who wrote 10, 25 or 35K for the month and felt rubbish because they ‘failed’. Which of course they hadn’t.

If I had been too caught up in what others were doing, I might have been discouraged.  But any words you get down are more than you started with, and we all have very different lives and writing strengths.  It is important to celebrate your own achievement, and not let comparisons take away from your successes.  And I would have never had got to 50K if I had gotten caught up in what others were doing.

Life is very hard to put on hold

I had many intentions of making writing the priority.  And there were things I did to make that happen.  I watched much less TV, I got less sleep, and I didn’t even open the packages that arrived from Booktopia over the month.

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My overly-ambition cake, I had been dying to try a mirror glaze. Chocolate Cake Base with Strawberry curd and White Chocolate Bavarian Cream Mousse, mirror glaze and a ginger-nut sand. #procrastibake

But life is almost impossible to put on hold.  You can plan to wake up early to write, but sometimes there is a baby that decides that 530am is the time to play.  Or that same baby turns 1 and you want to host a party with an over-ambitious cake.  There are forms that can’t fill out themselves, and meetings that can’t be missed. Sometimes the kids are sick, and the husband is sick, and you are sick and that is just life.

I had this blissful image of a beautiful month of writing.  And it was.  I just had to squeeze that beautiful writing time out of the hectic-ness of a normal month.

It turns out you can’t always switch off life to write.  You just have to fit your 50K words in admits the chaos.

The Writing Community is amazing

Three years ago, when I started NanoWriMo-ing.  I didn’t even join the website, I just kept track of my totals and posted them occasionally on Facebook.  But over the last three years I have steadily been building connections with writers, mostly over social media.  It has been such a joy, and that power of community really hit home during Nano.  We shared our totals, celebrated each other’s successes, and reminded ourselves why we do it on the days that were tough.  I am a better writer because of all the people I have writing beside me.

There are limits to what you can do in a month

Writing fast is a wonderful thing.  There is a heady excitement of getting the words down, the emersion that comes from swimming in the new world you have made.  Nano is permission to stop navel gazing and just see what happens.  But there are definite limits to what you can do well when you are writing so fast.  I got to the end and I could name about four characters who were well-rounded enough for my taste.  The rest were on the wooden side and need lots of work.  And though I had plotted, and world built in preparation, as the story unfolded there were questions about my world and how it worked that I just didn’t have time to properly answer if I was going to reach my words goals each day.

There might be experienced writers who can come up with something brilliant in a month. But I am not there yet.

It is only a Beginning.

Thanks to some work I did before Nano, I now have the roughest of rough first draft of my new novel.  And there is definitely a little thrill that comes from that knowledge.  But as I saw that winners certificate come up on my computer, it didn’t feel like an ending.  If it was anything I would say it was the Inciting Incident. Belinda Grant has written a rough draft of a story.  What will she do?  Will the editing get the better of her?  Will she lose focus on her goal and move onto the next shiny thing? Or will we see that triumphant moment of her story on the pages of a real, in-her-hands-book?

November is over.  I have the first draft of a new novel.  And now the real work begins.

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The Power of Food in Writing

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My Mum, sister Sandy and I were sitting at a table at the Lake House.  Once a swampy marsh, Alla Woolfe Tasker and her husband decided to buy a block of land in Daylesford to start a Country restaurant using local produce, many years before that was a thing you did.  Now it was one of the top restaurants in all of Australia.

It was in the early days of the Masterchef revolution, and it was like walking into a paradise. The waiters gave a detailed description of every dish and drop, and you didn’t even notice your glass of sparkling water was empty, before it was filled.

Every dish was a production, every sensation on your tongue was carefully orchestrated perfection.

But the most memorable moment was the lamb broth.  It was completely clear and smelt divine.  Mum, Sandy and I slipped our spoon’s into our broth and took a sip.  We all looked at each other, wondering why it was that the taste was so familiar.

“It’s Nan’s soup!”

I don’t know who was the first person to say it, but we all thought it.  The delicate clear broth might have looked world’s apart from Nan’s hearty lamb soup, but they tasted identical.  And in that moment I was transported away from the white table clothe’s and matching wines, and was back at Nan’s dining room table, the fire cracking in the corner, eating soup out of a mustard-coloured bowl, elbow to elbow with my cousins.

Taste is a powerful sense.  Your Grandma’s chocolate mousse, your Dad’s stir-fry, that one perfect coffee.  You taste it again and you are transported to another time and place.  You remember.  And for a reader of a novel, it is an instantaneous trick for getting them into the moment.  A character bites an orange, nibbles on some chocolate, or licks the icing off the cake.  Readers will know those sensation, and it will help them to slide into the mind of the character they are reading.  We might not know what it is like to live in a world of dragons, to run a country, or to climb a mountain range.  But we know what it is like to hunger and to feast.

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Why don’t we use it?

Why doesn’t food get used more in writing?  Partly I think it is because we don’t think of it.  There is so much to do when it comes to putting together a narrative, it is easy to let eating and food slide off the list.  But food is such a key part of human life, and it can be a wonderful addition to your writing tool-box.

So how do you go about using food in your writing?

Food helps you build a World

Food is a powerful tool for world building.  One of the great challenges for writers, particularly of fantasy, is to get facts and information across to the reader without ‘dumping’ the information in a great, dull heap.  But food can quickly communicate various aspects of the story: How poor a family is, how a party works in that world, or the economics of a society.

One of the most powerful examples of this is in “The Hunger Games” series, where Katnis has spent her life desperately hunting to feed her family (as well as putting her name into the reaping lotto extra-times in exchange for food for her family).  Then she goes to the capital, where the food is plentiful and excessive.  The nature of the two communities is highlighted by that contrast.  And when Katnis is asked what she loves most in the capital, she says the Lamb Stew, because for someone who has fought every day of her life to put food on her table, a beautiful dish she doesn’t have to hunt is a miracle.

(BTW, here is a recipe for a Lamb and dried plum stew like the one Katnis loves so much, I’ve made it and it is delicious!)

Food has such a huge influence on a society, it is a wonderful way of communicating a different world.

Food can help you develop character

Food can also be used to show what a character is like.  My Mother tells of her Step-Grandmother, who would never use her hands to eat. Mum remembers watching her eat a chicken wings and drum-sticks with a knife and fork.  With just a little piece of information, you can tell something of who she is.  Is the person health conscious?  A sloppy eater?  Does a family all rush to put as much food on their plate as they can, as if it could all disappear in a moment? Watching a character eat can give you a window into their personality and heritage.

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Food can make you want to visit a fictional world

I am sure I am not the only person in the world who is still waiting for my Hogwarts letter.  And I think part of it is just for the food.  Right up to the point where I realised that enslaved house-elves made the food, I was entranced by those big tables in the great hall, and the piles of deliciousness that appeared every night. And again the food is made all the more tempting because Harry has never had enough to eat up to that point.

The same thing happened as I read Crazy Rich Asians.  Everything, from the elaborate culinary production at Tyersall Park, to the Hawker-market Satay, made me want to go to Singapore.  I made Asian food for weeks in response to all that deliciousness.

Good, interesting, exciting food can draw you into a world, and make you want to be part of it.

A note for Fantasy writers Or How I got thinking about this.

I have always used food in my writing, mostly because I love food (I am one of those people who will be in a good mood all day because I know there is a particularly nice meal coming for dinner).  But I got thinking about this again after a writing dilemma.

A character in my novel was making balls of dried fruit and nuts.  Now, I could do one of two things.  I could give those fruits and nuts completely new names from my world.  That would give the reader a sense they were in another place.  But if those balls are made of almonds and dates, when a character takes a bite, most readers can imagine the sensation of what they tasted like, and it will help them get into that world.

It is a difficult line.

In the end, in discussion with some of my fantasy writing buddies, I decided that ‘made-up’ food should be used occasionally and sparingly.  Yes it can give a sense of other worldliness, but because the reader doesn’t know the food you are talking about, it wretches them out of the world and doesn’t give them that ‘sensation on the tongue’ memory that is so immersive.

But one little technique I’ve notices authors use, is to give familiar food an other-worldly feeling.  You might have a in-world animal cooked into a familiar dish.  You might have food eaten with different utensils, or have the simplest meal of the day in the evening.  In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight books he has ‘men’s food’ (meat cooked in spicy sauce) or ‘women’s food’ (meat cooked in sweet sauce).  You can taste it as he writes, but you are still convinced you aren’t in Kansas anymore.  Or you might explain a dish without using its our-world name.  You can’t use a term like Boston Bun or Black Forrest Cake in a place without a Boston or a Black Forrest!  But you can eat a Fruit bun with icing or Chocolate and cherry cake!  If a character eats sushi, that might seem too specific for a reader, but they will understand what it tastes like to have rice-balls wrapped in dried sea-weed.

So, if you are a writer, why not think hard about how food and taste can be used in your writing.  It is a small aspect of writing that can make a big difference.

I highly recommend if you are a fantasy writer (or even if you aren’t) that you listen to this Writing Excuses Podcast on Fantasy Food with Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch.  It is extremely hilarious as well as informative on this topic.

Also K.M. Allan has an excellent post on writing with the five senses here. Well worth a look!

 

Why Nano?

 

The month of October has arrived.  That means more sunshine, Cherry blossoms, and days in the backyard (at least for me here in Melbourne).  But it also means that Nanowrimo is on its way.

Nanowrimo is a yearly writing challenge that runs every year in the month of November.  Working on the basis that a novel is around 50K, the challenge is to write an entire novel in a month, along-side other writers.  You can find out about it here.

Writing-twitter and my writing related Facebook pages, are filled with people talking about and planning for Nano.  There are also others who are wondering, is this the year to try it?

And while it isn’t for everyone (and some years just don’t work), this is my plea for you to consider it.  Because it is an experience that has changed my life.

You realise just how much time you have.

The first time I did Nano, I had two year old twins and a 5 month old.  An editor friend asked on Facebook who was doing Nano and I said “I would love to do it one day but…” and brought up the afore mentioned off-spring.  She replied that I could always set a modest goal and see how I go.  So at the time in my life where I had less time for writing than I ever had, I set myself the goal of writing 1000 words a day.

I managed 25K words that month.  I cut out night-time television and day time naps and I  wrote more in that month than I had written in years.

Nano is great because when you are forcing yourself to stick to a word goal each day, you realise how many little pockets of time you have in your day.  You realise that television and social media aren’t half as satisfying as writing.  Nano taught me how much time I had, and how much I could get done if I spent it writing.  And those lessons have carried on into some excellent writing habits.

It is a finite time

New Years resolutions rarely work.  Promising yourself that for a whole year you will X, Y, or Z might seem a great idea in January, but come March that enthusiasm starts to wane.

But one month of working hard at a goal, is much more manageable and realistic.

One month of your kids watching slightly more television than normal is okay.  One month of a messy house is okay, or one month of easy, simple meals.  One month is measurable, finite.

And I can plan for it.  I can spend October getting the house in order, and preparing for activities that couldn’t be moved.  Because it is only a small block of time, I can work hard the rest of the year to make it possible.

It is accountability

This is the first year I am trying for the 50K, and also the first time I have actually signed up on the ‘official’ website.  But even before I did that, I have always been public with my Nano-goals.  I have Facebooked my Nano-journey, celebrating the milestone’s and despaired during the difficult days.  Not everyone who read my status’ would have cared or understood, but for me it was a powerful incentive.  I had told the world I was going to write, and so write I did.

And while I had set myself the goal of finishing the first draft of a Novel every year for most of my life, with the accountability of Nano, it became a reality.

 

These are all really good reasons to do Nano.  But there is one big reason why every year since that first faithful 25K, I have made myself do Nano.  And it is not about good habits (I write most days now), or accountability (I have writing friends who help me with that), or the finite nature of the month (though it is related to that).

For One Month, I let myself prioritise writing

My life is very full of good things and I have lots of wonderful responsibilities.  I have four beautiful children, with various important needs and wants, and as a Stay at Home Mum I have day-time duty for them.  I have friends, I have responsibilities.  I have a house that is never tidy and people I care about and volunteer work I do and family and friends I love and…the list goes on.

And I find it very hard to put any of that aside for my writing.  It feels selfish to say- “No, that is my writing time”.  Sure, I am happy to spend my leisure time (Ha!) on writing, but to treat it like a job and not a hobby makes me feel like an imposter.

But I want writing to be my job one day.  And it never will be unless I treat it as such.

So Nano is my permission to do that.  It is the month where I let myself say ‘Yes’ to writing, and ‘No’ to the other good things in my life.  And every year I do it, every year I reach my goals,  I get a little bit better at believing in myself.

October might have Cherry-Blossoms and my favourite mild weather.  But November is my favourite month of the year.  Because November is the month where I get to write my heart-out.

And what could be better than that!

Questions to Ask when Editing your Second Draft

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A year and a half ago I finished the first draft of The Librex.  But when I came back to it after a break, I knew it needed more than a check for punctuation errors.  The entire structure needed a re-haul.

But it was hard to know where to start.  I wasted time, knowing a scene didn’t work, but not knowing how to fix it.

But last year I also had the privilege of doing a Fantasy writing course with writer CS Pacat.  One of the most helpful things she covered was what keeps readers engaged, or as she calls it ‘Narrative traction’.  She argued readers keep reading because of the promise that what will be on the next page will be even better than what you are reading now.  Narrative traction can be tension or suspence, but it is more than that.  What’s the reader waiting for?  It might be crucial information about the world and how it works.  It might be a romantic moment between characters.  And drawing on her lessons, I came up with some helpful questions to ask as I worked on my second draft.

What will the readers want to know? AND What will readers want to see?

Is there any information that the reader will want to know?  Information about a particular magic system?  A character’s past?  Something that the reader will be curious to find out about your story, characters or world.

And what will readers want to see?  What aspects of the story are fun or novel?  What characters are entertaining?  They might be things that are already in your story.  Or there might be things that you decide to add because you know the readers will be wishing it was there.

And once you know the answers to these questions, you can structure the novel accordingly.

If there is something the reader will want to know, you might decide to hold off telling it to keep the reader hooked.

Similarly, if there is something you readers want to see you might hint that it will happen eventually to keep them turning the page.

Or alternatively, it might involve giving the people want they want.  I knew, from my own feelings and from the few people who read my book, that one minor character was compelling.  So I used that.  I included more scene’s with him.  I used him to get across information that the reader needed to know.  And I gave him a history with a character who comes up later in the book, so that when we met said character, we are already pre-disposed to care about him by association.

The secret is, you always want the reader wanting more.  If you give a tasty piece of info, or if you give the readers what they want, make sure there there is a question left hanging, or a new scene they are dying to see, to keep them hooked.

What scenes will excite your readers (and what about them make them work)?

The question “What scenes will excite your readers?” is helpful in two ways.  First it tells you where you have nailed it!  These are the scene’s that are worth keeping.  But secondly, it will help you work out how to make your other scenes better, or what scenes to add.  There is a type of magic in my novel that my husband loves, and every time we talk about my novel he demands I add more.  Knowing which scene’s work and why, can help you to give the readers more of what they want.

But then you have to look at what is not working.

What will the reader skim through?

My husband ‘read’ my first draft by listening to me read it aloud as he offered special comments along the way.  This was fun, occasionally painful, and a great learning experience.  If my husband insisted we kept going, I knew the scene was working.  But if he ended a scene by saying, “that’s enough for now, let’s read some more tomorrow”, it was almost guaranteed that the scene was dull.

And even without a guinea pig, if we are honest with ourselves, we can usually work out which scene don’t work.

So what happens when you realise that a scene is the kind of scene a reader will skim through?  You then are faced with two options:

Scrap it

OR

Add drama and tension to the scene to make it engaging.

Some scene’s just need to be scrapped and that is okay.  A big part of structural editing is getting rid of dead-weight.  If a scene isn’t engaging, or doesn’t move the story forward, then it doesn’t belong in the novel.  If there is something important that the reader needs to know, but it is otherwise a boring scene, either change up the scene so it engages, or add the info to another scene.

ACT II of the Librex started with a skim forward in time, and a navel gazing internal monologue from the protagonist about how much she had changed, and how she hadn’t.  It was (embarrassingly) terrible and I scrapped it.

But I was able to add in a scene where two characters (in the protagonist’s hearing), argued about whether she was ready for a particular promotion.  It was two characters we had never seen alone together, who had a complicated history and huge stakes in the protagonists path. It got across the same information as the navel gaze, but was now full of drama and tension.

Exposition Questions

Exposition is one of the banes of Fantasy writing.  You have created your own world, and so there is copious tomes of information to pass on to the reader, so they can understand the world and the story.  But no one picks up a fantasy book because they are dying to read an essay about imaginary fauna.  They pick it up for the story.

One struggle at the moment in my other novel is that that I have lots of information to get across about a particular crop (which is unique to my world and quite crucial to the story).  But not everyone (okay, almost no one) is interested in fabricated, fantasy agriculture by itself.

I was grappling with this when a member of my writing group gave me two helpful questions to ask when struggling with how to do exposition:

When will the reader be most excited to get this info?

And

How can I make the reader want to know this info?

I realised that the start of a novel was NOT the time for dumping info about my beloved grain.  Much better to give little information early (on a needs to know basis) and then to get more information across when it was relevant to the story, and the reader cares.

Or in The Librex, I had a character explain, before we meet a someone, that they did a terrible thing. But in my second draft, I took that scene out.  Now we met the character with a fresh slate.  We grew to like them.  So BANG, when I dropped the news of what they had done, we cared.  This news now had a significant emotional impact on the protagonists, and hopefully the reader.

So those are the questions that are helping me through my second draft.

What about other writers out there?  What questions help you edit your second draft?

 

Why do I write?

Why do I write?

As a little girl of five, I decided I wanted to be a famous Author.  I wasn’t sure I had the talent to be a famous singer, actor, or ballerina.  And I loved books.  So being an author seemed like the only avenue I had to fame and fortune (Ha!).  But though the reasoning changed, the dream never did.

Why do I write?

Because I love to imagine.  I still remember the time (I won’t tell you how old I was!) when one of the boys next door caught me pretending I was riding a horse through the ‘Secret Garden’ by our house. It was embarrassing, but it was a profound moment.  Because maybe I was too old to be prancing around playing imaginary games.  But I realised then that I wasn’t going to stop dreaming up stories, no matter how old I got.  Writing lets me hold onto the best bits of childhood.

Why do I write?

I write because that is how I process this world.  By expressing.  Some of that is done verbally, as I figure out what I think by percolating over it during a phone D&M, a cup of Earl Grey, or even as I pray.  But some thinking can only be done by words on a page. I write to think clearly.

Why do I write?

I write because this world is so beautiful and interesting and so are it’s people and when I write there is this extra shimmer to everything because my eyes open up and I see the beauty that is right there.

Why do I write?

I write because this world can be brutal and hard and sometimes it is nice to go somewhere else for a change.

Why do I write?

During University I was writing a novel about four friends.  And one day I picked up an orange, and I found myself wondering how my book-girls would eat it.  And I realised that Mae would peel it and spend a few minutes removing all the pith before she ate each segment, and Kaye would just chop it with a knife, and Annie would peel it and bite off the tip of a segments and slowly slurp out the juice, and Ella didn’t like oranges, but was too polite to say no when someone handed her a slice (and only Annie and the boy-next-door Matty knew the truth).

Those characters became real people to me.  They lived.  That is why I write.

Why do I write?

Because it is the most glorious hobby I have ever experienced.  It feeds my soul.  It makes me a better person.  There are moments of difficult and struggle, and I know I have only touched the surface of the very scary world of writing rejection.

But the highs?  Those moments when a plot idea sails into your head like a gift.  When the characters you love have a moment of insight or triumph.  When a phrase just sings. When an idea becomes a scene, and a plot becomes a story.  When I go to bed early, just so I can lie under the covers and go to my new world for an adventure.

When I tell people I am a writer I often say that reading a book is like watching a video of someone visiting an amazing place.  Writing is going there yourself.

And that is why I write.

 

My Year in Writing and the Lessons I am Learning

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August seems as good a time as any to take stock of the year so far and to think about what is ahead.  It has been a year of writing, editing, procrastinating, and life getting in the way.

But I have been learning many things through the process.

THE TRAP OF SOCIAL MEDIA

I love social media.  It feeds my extroverted heart in a stage of life where I am at home most of the day.  It connects me to many precious friends, and it is my main avenue for conversing with other writers.

But it is a great time drain.  What I noticed this year is the way I rely on it when I am struggling.  If I am feeling discouraged about my writing, or getting bored with editing, then I fall to social media for comfort and a break.  But it doesn’t help the problems, and so I go back to it over and over again.  I have taken to putting my phone on it’s charger and turning off the wifi on my computer.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still check SM regularly, but the act of having to get up, or turn wifi back on, makes me more conscious of how I am using it.

THE RIGHT QUESTIONS TO ASK WHILE RESTRUCTURING

Restructuring is a new skill that has not come easily to me. I made lots of mistakes as I edited my novels first Act, because I was too focused on fixing individual scenes and not enough on the big picture of what needed to happen when and why.  But working out the right questions to ask has made a big difference.

I will be writing a blog post about specific questions I ask when I edit, but the general questions of “What things would the reader care about at this point?” and “Which scene’s would the reader skim over or find dull?” helped me to work out what things needed to go and what scene’s could be added or re-tweaked to make it hum.

THE NEED FOR (ARTIFICIAL) DEADLINES

One of the hardest things about writing a novel when unpublished is there are no immediate dead-lines.  Unless there is a competition you are entering or an assignment you need to hand-in, you are the only person who cares when you get your novel done.  This means it is very easy to go slow, or to be side-tracked by other writing projects.

So I create artificial deadlines.

I have a on-line writing group where we have the option of submitting a scene for feedback once a month.  But even though it is optional, I make myself submit every month.  Not only do I find the feedback invaluable, but the deadline acts as wonderful motivation.  And once I have submitted my scene, I am in the habit of working hard, which sets the tone for the rest of the month.

Also, this year I watched lots of writing friends enter pitching competitions and attend Editor/Agent meet-ups with their completed manuscripts.  So, if that is my aim, then I work backwards to think about what I would need to do to get my novel complete by the same time next year.

These deadlines need to be short enough to motivate.  “Get my novel edited this year” didn’t motivate me in Feb to edit.  Deciding in April to get Act I edited by the end of May worked much better as a dead-line.

So, where am I up to with my writing?

The Librex

This is my baby, my first novel, everything that I love to read in other books condensed into a book of my own.  A friend said to me yesterday “You’ve finished your first novel, does that mean you are editing?”  The answer was yes and no.  I had no idea how to write a novel when I wrote the first draft of The Librex, and so it is not so much editing as a complete restructure/re-write.  I have finished the restructure of Act I and have just finished plotting out Act II.  My goals are to have Act II finished by the end of September, Act III finished by the End of December, and to clean it up and make it sparkle over January, ready to give to some beta readers for feedback.

Savey & Mason

Savey & Mason is my Fantasy/Romance.  It is based on a dream I had many years ago, a vivid scene filled with intense emotion and interesting magic.  The next day I had to sit down and work out a world and story in which that dream ‘scene’ could fit.  I put it away while I finished The Librex first draft, but began to turn it into a novel during the Fantasy writing course I did last year.  I am getting closer to finishing the first draft, and am giving scenes to my writing group for their feedback.  Hoping to get the first draft done by the end of December, so I can edit it up while The Librex is off in feedback-land.

AJ

One of my biggest challenges in editing is sticking to task and not getting side-tracked by new, shiny stories.  AJ is my new, shiny story that I am doing my best not to write. I am consoling myself by knowing I will devote November’s Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) to working on it.  I am hoping this will be the year where I finally succeed in writing 50,000 words in a month.

So that is my year so far. Fellow writers out there, how has your year been tracking?  What new things have you learnt?

Writing Tips for the sleep deprived

When I tell people that I am writing a novel with four young kids at home, the first thing people ask is where I find the time.  And while that can be a challenge, I don’t find it the biggest barrier to my writing.

The biggest barrier I find is the sleep deprivation.

It makes sense.  When you are sleep deprived your brain works at a slower pace.  Your memory is impaired.  So when it is time to come up with a creative solution to a plot hole, or find the perfect metaphor, you come up short.

And even as I write this, with only five hours granted to me by a sick infant, every word that isn’t four letters long takes an extra few seconds to recall.

And yet, despite sleeping through the night 4 times in the last three years, I have finished the first draft of a novel, and written over 100,000 words on several more.

How you ask?  How do you keep writing and growing as a writer when your mind is a sieve?  Well, here are a few tricks I have developed as I have continued to write through the fog.

PLACE-SETTERS

There are things that come easily for me in writing and things that don’t.  I find dialogue and action flow even when I am tired.  But description, and showing emotions through actions do not.  I also find my vocabulary is reduced when I am over-tired, as it takes a great deal of time to come up with the perfect word.

So rather than wasting precious hours racking my sub-par brain, I use place-setters.  I put a note to myself to add things in later.

In my early years of writing, my place-settings was fjfjfjf.  If I didn’t know what to write at a point, and I wanted to come back to it later, I would just tap my index fingers on the keyboard: fjfjfjf.  That way during edits, it was easy to see where I got stuck.

Overtime my place-setters have become more specific. There is a rthym to a scene; a pacing and structure that is engrained in me from the thousand odd books I have read.  On a day of exhaustion, even though I don’t always have the energy to write out a whole scene, I usually have a sense of what belongs where.

So as I write, I leave notes to Future-Belinda about what needs to be added to the scene.  I write them in capital letters, and come back to them later.  Some might be general like ‘ACTION’ or ‘MORE DESCRIPTION’.  It might be my own critiques of what I already know needs to change like ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ or ‘NEEDS MORE FEELS’.  Or it might be  more specific like ‘GOOD PLACE FOR A METAPHOR/SIMILIE’ or ‘THINK MORE ABOUT HOW HE IS FEELING HERE’

I don’t write like this every day.  Some days I will write a full scene, with very few place-setters. Some days all I will do is go through a scene and replace the place-setters with better words.  But it is a great way to keep plugging away at the story when I don’t have the mind space to write pretty.

NOTES

It is probably a good tip, regardless of sleep levels, for writers to make notes as they think of things.  I often recall Roald Dahl’s story about writing “ELEVATOR” in the mud on his car when he first came up with the idea for ‘Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’.  But this is even more the case when you are sleep deprived.

I have a great memory for my stories, and back in the days of eight-hours sleep, I wouldn’t always take notes on the go, because most of the time I could recall my ideas when I was finally back at my computer.  No longer!  It is hard enough to remember what I am doing the next day, much less intricate details of plot.  I sometimes even find myself searching for a scene in my manuscript, only to discover I haven’t written it yet.

So keep notes.  Your weary-brain will thank you.

READING

It is the classic advice that almost every writer will give you when you ask the question: ‘What is the most important thing you can do to improve your writing?’ Read.  But when life gets busy I can forget the importance of this, as I find it hard to justify reading when there is so much writing to do.

But my writing is so much better when it is feed from a steady diet of wonderful books.  Reading isn’t an optional extra for writers.  It is a key aspect of the process.

And reading is so much easier than writing when you are sleep-deprived!  So take advantage of that.  If you have had a rough night, then turn away from your computer/notebook and pick up a book.  Your manuscript will be better for it.

OR DON’T WRITE

This might seem an odd point in a post about writing through sleep deprivation.  But I think it needs to be said.

My observation of myself and my writing friends is there is often a huge sense of urgency to writing.  It takes a great deal of time to write a novel.  And so many of us look back on our early years of dreaming of writing a novel and yet not taking the steps to do it and think ‘what a waste’

And so, at times like this, when kids are little or work is overwhelming or other commitments get in the way, we are determined to press through regardless.

But sometimes you have to be kind to yourself.

If you are too tired to write, that is okay too.

Or it might mean what you write needs to change.  I have always found writing to be a cathartic experience; writing is how I think, process and make sense of this world.  But in the haze of sleeplessness, adding in the pressure of deadlines or negative critiques or writers-despair isn’t a great for your mental health.  Much better to take a break from the most challenging parts and to write in a journal, blog about fun things, or even work on a new story just for the fun of it.

It may be that this is not the right time to write your novel.  And that is okay.

 

So, those are my tips for writing through sleep-deprivation.  Yes it has its challenges.  But it can be done.

It Won’t Always Be

backlight backlit countryside dusk

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

 

I sit on the couch, my little snotter-rella curled up in my lap.  The sky is that slate grey that precedes the dawn.  I know I should get up and write but she is warm and cuddley and not quite ready to start the day.  And either am I.

I don’t usually get SAD.  I don’t mind the cold.  Sunny Winter days are one of my favourite dressings for Melbourne, when the steam huffs from my lips and the air feels clean and pure.  But this winter is different.  I have been sick through the whole thing, my nose and throat taking turns complaining the most, with a week of my congested chest entering the competition.  The kids don’t want to go outside, even though I know they need the fresh air almost as much as I do.  So me and the not-yet-able-to-consciously-object one go out during television time, as she babbles in all her layers on a mat and I walk laps around the outdoor table and swing-set.

It has been a winter where I have 1000 balls in the air, and a few falling to the ground with a splat.  Appointments and applications and emails and- oh wait, did I make that payment?  I am that unfortunate personality combination of scatterbrained and conscientious.  I believe in being reliable, but my life rarely lets me reach my own high standards. I spend far too much time mourning the stains on the floor.

It has been a winter of tiredness.  Not the mind-numbing tiredness of non-sleeping twins.  A nefarious tiredness that you don’t know you feel, that makes you irritable and down, but you blame everything else in your life except the late nights and early mornings.

Yesterday I managed to get a hesitant young-man out the door for five minutes.  “I want to see the flowers.  Let’s go out long enough to see the flowers.” Cherry-blossoms, cascading down it’s willow-like branches, a water-fall of pink perfume.  Is it just me or do the blossoms come out earlier every year?  I lifted him up so he could catch the scent, before we returned to the cocoon of bricks and central heating.

I like winter, but I love spring.  Different flowers making an appearance each week.  European branches reclaiming the title of green.  It’s not always warm, but there is an air of excitement as I scroll the weeks weather.  Ups and downs and occasional twenties, instead of the endless parade of “cloudy top of 12, cloudy top of 12, cloudy top of 12.”

“The sky is white, it is morning time!”  Sometimes I forget that Miss Three can’t tell time.  That when we get up in the dark she doesn’t know how close we are until the dawn.  But it is here- streaks of blue through the white.  Rumours of showers and 14 were greatly exaggerated.

I wipe both our noses and we get off the couch, ready to start the day.

It is still winter.  But it won’t always be.

 

Why I Write Short-stories

My dream is to one day be a published Fantasy author.  Novel writing is my first love.  But as well as plugging away at my big, long projects, I have been trying to do some short-story writing.  In particular, I have been entering the Monthly Furious Fiction competition through the Australian Writers Centre.

Every month, as I try to fit my writing into the small windows when the kids are otherwise entertained, I wonder if I would be better spending all my time on my novels.  But I have found there are some real advantages to spending time writing short-stories.

They are Bite-sized

A novel is a huge undertaking.  It is the marathon of writing, and sometimes it can feel like it will never end.  There are times when you need a break, or something to get you excited about writing again.  Short-stories play that role for me.

Story-stories are bite-sized.  There is something rather fun about sitting down for a weekend and churning out a first draft of a story in a few days.

I also tend to be the kind of writer who has more ideas than time.  Short-stories are a great way to take an idea, a question or a concept and turn it into something that can be polished and potentially read in very little time.  I don’t need to put-aside my WIP or spend two years working, to see it come to life.

They can be Topical

Last year I wrote a story which involves an invention that allowed women to go out at night safely.  It grew out of my own love of walking at night, and my frustration that as a woman, this was a risky undertaking.

Cue this month, and suddenly, for heart-breaking reasons, this topic is extremely relevant.  It seems like it might be the right time to polish that story and send it out again.

But even if I didn’t have that story, because short-stories are not year-long projects, when an issue comes out in society that sparks a story idea, you can write it, edit it, and get it out in competitions and journal slush piles quickly.  If successful, it can be printed within a year of when it is written.  If I wrote a novel which touched on a topic in the news, even if I managed to find a publisher for it right away, there would still be a long process from writing to having it in people’s hands.  And by then, the time of relevance might have passed.

It improves my Novel writing

Beautiful prose is not my natural strong-point.  I love plots and character and dialogue, and I tend to imagine the events of my story like film scenes.  The scenes come easily, but the hard work is taking those images from my head and converting them into words that vividly paint those pictures onto the page.

But in short-stories, every word counts.  I sit with my 500, 1000, or 3000 words and I comb over my word choices with a precision that a lengthy novel just can’t afford.  I work hard to make the words sing, because in a story with minimal time for events or dialogue, the music of the prose is what makes the story come alive.

Every time I write a short-story, I find that my subsequent novel writing is sharper and clearer.  Short-stories help me to practice a type of writing that doesn’t come easy to me, so that when I sit down to write my novel, my short-story style rubs off.

Feedback

One of the hardest things about writing a novel is having to wait until it’s finished to know what it is like.  I have had feedback on scenes, and had people look at the plot outline, but it takes lots of work to get to a point where people can read the whole novel.  And by the time you have put all that effort in, it feels extra stressful to hand it across for feedback.

But short-stories are a shorter time investment, both for the writer and for those who are  reading for feedback. So the feedback comes quicker, and is less painful if the story doesn’t work. I learn from my mistakes almost as soon as I’ve made them.  And so my writing keeps improving, in the short form and in the long.

Furious Fiction

At the start of the year, I began to enter a competition through the Australian Writer’s Centre called Furious Fiction.  Each month, I would be sent out some parameters for my story (words to be used or objects to be present in the story), and would have the weekend to write a 500 word story.

The first few months were hard.  My stories seemed so weak next to the short-listed and winning stories.  I wondered if this poor little Fantasy writer was naive to bother.

But for all the reasons above, I kept entering.  And each month, my stories got a little more polished.

And this month, to my delight, I was short-listed.  I didn’t win, but my story was published, I got to read what they liked about it, and show all my friends a sample of my writing.  It was a pat on the back and a shot of confidence, right at the point when I needed it.  And as I sat back down to novel editing this week, it is with a small, new voice in my head whispering “You can do this.”

 

You can find my story on this page.  Mine is the third story down 🙂

 

 

 

My Cupboard is a Space-Rocket

flight launch rocket astronaut

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My cupboard is a space-rocket.  Most of the time I can convince my intrepid astronauts to stick to the bottom-level/shelf which I keep empty.  But occasional trips to the moon require more space, so the clean towels end up on the floor as they branch across a second shelf.  When I come to investigate I am warned to stand back, because the fire from the rocket might burn me.  So I keep my distance, and we count-down to take-off together.

My bed is a mountain in Nepal.  I walk in and can see the little lumps moving under the sheets, as they hide in their ‘tent’ from Snow-storms and Yetis.

My lounge room is an ocean filled with Islands, that to an untrained eye might first appear to be rugs and couches.  The preferred method of movement across the seas is swimming, although an esky lid makes an excellent boat, a toy railway track doubling as an oar.  There is good fishing to be found on those floor-boards, though you must watch out for sharks and crocodiles. You find out about the said predator’s arrival, when the room is filled with shrieks and laughter, and everyone makes a run for it through the shallows.

My house is big and old.  It is sometimes clean and rarely tidy.  It is draughty and in winter we balk at the gas-bill (but turn up the central-heating anyway).  The best thing that can be said about the carpet is that it hides stains well.

One day an owner will knock it down and build a mega-mansion.  It is the story of all the other old houses in our street.

But until that day, it is our little Wonderland.