Younger

I don’t remember how old I was when the conversation happened.  Probably still young enough to be eating coco-pops in bed with Nan and Pa when we visited.  But I remember where I was standing, by Nan’s dresser, just below the picture of her when she was a girl.  Those portraits that were closer to a painting than a modern snap.  I think I had made a comment that she looked beautiful or pretty.  I don’t remember my words, but I remember hers, as clearly as if she spoke them just a moment ago.  She pointed to that picture and said “I’m still like that inside.  You might look at me and think I’m an old lady, but inside I’m the same as you.”

I did think she was old, which is funny, because my parents are now older than she was then, but they don’t feel old at all.  Maybe parents never do.  But her words stuck with me because they changed me.  I could never quite look at her, or my parents, or anyone older than me in quite the same way

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I started watching the television show “Younger”. It is about a women in her forties who pretends to be 26, so she could fake her way into an entry-level job.  She couldn’t get into the industry of her youth after so many years out of the workforce.  The show didn’t grab me, but as I watched the first episode, I had to remind myself that I technically should be relating to the Liza character rather than her young peers.  But I didn’t.  Twenty-six seems not that long ago.  And yet as tomorrow we tick-over to 2019, my fortieth seems much closer than it did even a day ago.

Inside I feel so much younger than I am.  Maybe it’s because I spend my days watching Disney-movies, putting together lego, and taking parts in imaginary ballet concerts on my daughters bed.  Or maybe it is the strangeness of the SAHM world, where people start again, and the only age that matters is the age of your offspring.

Or maybe, like my Nan, I am just younger.  Younger than I look, or am.  Maybe that is how we all are.  Like the story of the man walking down the street, noticing the old guy in the shop window, then starting because it is his own reflection.

A few years ago I found this dissonance troubling, as I realised the “young people” in our lives no longer saw me as a peer.  I am slowly making peace with that, accepting the change, realising that it doesn’t matter how others view me.  That I am more than a number, an aching back or a new grey hair.  That I am a product of experience, that I am wiser, more objective, and less materialistic.  But still myself.  That as long as my legs will let me, I will be the first person on the dance floor at a wedding.  I will still be unable to put down an exciting novel no matter the time.  I will still walk the beach at sunset, and cry at the sappiest things.  Because those aren’t young-people things.  They are just me.

And now my parents are young and in their sixties, and my Nan is in a nursing home.  But she keeps a box of toys under her bed for the Great-grandkids, and her face lights up at the sight of a baby, the way it always has.  We are both a great deal older than we were.

But not so different on the inside.

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.

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!

 

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.

6 Senses of my Mum

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Taste

There are a thousand tastes, so many years and meals and memories. But if I had to settle on one, I would have to say croissants.  Buttery and flakey and straight out of the oven.  The pastry made the night before, then up at 6am to form it into it’s perfect little crescents, ready to rise then finish baking just before we arrive for morning tea.

“Who makes their own croissants?” My husband asks.  “My Mother.” I answer with a grin.  Mum who plans and kneads and crisps her love into every meal she offers.

Smell

Lady Grey tea.  Not that she drinks it, she prefers the smokiness of Russian Caravan.  It is me who loves the bergamot with a hint of citrus.  But I associate it with her, because whether it is home or on a family holiday, she never forgets to make some for me.

One day she arrived just as I hit my peak state of panic, overwhelmed with one hundred jobs and no clue where was the logical place to start.

“I’ll make you a cuppa.”

“I don’t have time.”

“Sit down.  Have a cup of tea.  It will help.  Trust me.”

And I do.  So we sit, two steaming cups between us, and as we talk the mountain becomes a hill and the impossible is possible once again.

Touch

This is the hardest one to narrow down, but I think it is the brush of a warm scarf around my neck.  Mum aways carries a folded scarf in her bag just in case, and I’ve lost count of the times that she has pulled it out when I have once again mis-diagnosed the Melbourne weather.  Nice to go out in the cold with someone who is always prepared, when your mind is permanently positioned in another realm.

When I was in hospital, ill and trapped and wondering when my tiny twins would enter the world, Mum would visit.  She brought along a half knitted scarf, and as we sat and talked she would work her way along another row.  Now it sits on my shoulders on the coldest days of the year, a happy memory from one of the hardest times of my life.

Hearing

Music.  No one song.  Hundreds of songs.  Ones that played on the CD player while we cleaned the kitchen in-between our dance steps.  Breaking into song half way through a sentence when we recognise a line from a song.  Even my son’s singing, because he is like his beloved Grandma, a sponge absorbing every tune he hears.

Sight

Red.  Bright, exuberant red.  For both of us.  Not just because it suits our identical colouring, but because it is us.  Enthusiastic, optimistic and occasionally a bit too loud.  Like Mother like daughter.

 

But there is a sixth sense.  Not telepathy.  A feeling.  An emotion.  A sense that comes when I see her smile or when I hear her voice on a phone.

Peace.

 

Where you are

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Reflections on a Day at “the Prom”

He is up on his toes, his eyes looking forward at the waves ahead.  His stripy undies sag with the weight of wet sand and water.  “There is another one.  Let’s jump!”  So we do.  My legging are drapped over my shoulders and I’ve stopped worrying about the waves lapping against the hem of my dress.

I’ve stopped worrying about most things.

It didn’t occur to me that the water would be this warm, or that he would want to be in it.  But here we are.  There is no wind, so it doesn’t matter that we are half in and half out.  The sun sits low over the rocks and sends it’s perfect yellow light over the two Oberons.

He is happy and brave.  When the wave knocks him to his seat he stands up and calls out “never-mind”.  As if he is a wave-jumping veteran and not the same boy who barely touched the retracting waves over Summer.

He is getting tired, now he wants to jump up into my arms.  Normally I would say “No, Mummies back will get sore.”  But today I want to hold him as much as he wants to be held.

That night the three guitars come out.  The first few choices are obvious.  “The Boxer”. “Fire and Rain”. I look around the room.  You can spot those with Clarke blood.  Those who married-in might nod and smile and hum the eighties tunes.  But those of us raised by a Clarke brother can’t help singing along.  Seventies and Eighties folk was our childhood bread and butter.

We do Annie’s song.  The words are so simple, and yet always make me a little teary.  Particularly here, where nature is just on the other side of the cabin door.  You fill up my senses, like a late-night wombat hunt.  Like Squeaky beach in autumn.  Like the view from Telegraph Saddle.

We end with Paul Kelly’s “How to make Gravy”.  We can’t go on after that, we are all in tears, thinking about that poor imaginary man stuck in jail as his family celebrates Christmas.

So much of life is looking forward or back.  Waiting until we get to go to this place or experience that adventure.  Voyerising those who are currently where we want to be, or who are doing the things that we long to do.

But not always.  Not this weekend.

Because sometimes where you want to be is exactly where you are.

Four Kids

When people ask me what it is like having four kids under five, I tell them that it is like being a Triage Nurse in an Emergency Department.

You know the one.  S/he is the gatekeeper who decides which cases are the most important.  So when my son broke his arm, the Triage nurse sent him straight through to the Emergency Doctor.  Even though he had only just arrived, the nurse decided his case was more important than Mr Forty with an unexplained rash or Ms Seven with a pea up her nose.

That is my life at the moment.  I am an Emergency room Triage nurse.

Let me illustrate.

I am sitting on the couch feeding my youngest.  Child A says he’s hungry.  Child C says she wants a drink of milk.  Child B wants me to read a story.

I triage and read the story while feeding the baby.  The others must wait then I get child C her milk (because thirst trumps hunger) and then get Child A their snack.

Or the house is a mess and one child is wearing no pants but another child is crying from a bump and the baby needs a change and another child wants to tell me about a bug he just found.

I first comfort the crying child, then change the baby nappy while listening to the bug story, then I find the pants and assist the child to put them back on.  The house remains a mess.

Or One child wants a push on the swing while another is wearing no pants and another wants a drink and the baby is awake.

So I get a drink for the thirsty child and put the baby on the mat outside while I push the other child on the swing but wait I forgot the pants just wait a minute darling I’ll be back in a minute I just need to dress your brother/sister.

And of course, different things take precedent at different times.  If someone is coming over then tidying and wearing pants goes straight to the top of the triage list.

But then sometimes one child is reading a story while another is singing to the baby and another is telling me the names of all the train stations from Belgrave to the City.

And then it is just the best.