Aside

Authorial Intrusions

The practice of interrupting the flow of a text to directly address the reader. An aside, a private joke, an instructional piece of barely discernible gibberish meant to point the way with the giant index finger of one of those massive foam hands.

That’s pretty much my intent here. By sharing some of my experiences as an emerging writer, I hope to help those less travelled lace up their walking boots and get on out the door. Care to join my adventure?

Staying Sane

One of the things I’ve found most important to my well-being as a writer is physical activity.

Huh?

No, really. It’s true. As someone who has always been reasonably active, not being so quickly makes me not so much fun to be around. I get cranky and feel house-bound to say the least.

So like most days during this Camp NaNoWriMo for July, I’m heading out for a run. I won’t be breaking any speed or endurance records (not that I’d ever be looking at that anyway!) but I will be loosening all those muscles that tend to tighten up when I’m spending prolonged periods at my keys. It’s not just the shoulder and back either. For me it’s hamstrings, quads and calves too. They’ve always been prone to cramping if I get too slack.

Swimming is my preferred way to blow of steam and recharge my batteries. But, given that we’re in the middle of school holidays and my daughter is less than enthused over the prospect of going for a dip in the middle of winter, a run will have to suffice.

Progress on my novel is going well. I’ve been averaging about 2 000 words per day, but with my plan to write strictly off the top of my head, that’s not too difficult a task. I’m on track to end the month with around about 62 000 words, which I hope will be close to a complete vomit draft.

Only then will the real work begin!

 

In Hope of Shrooming

For almost a year I’ve been in denial. There’s a number of reasons why, but basically I’ve ignored the gnawing urge to attempt a full length novel because the very thought terrifies me. What if I can’t sustain the narrative? What if I’m just filling space? What if the work is rubbish?

Yeah. It’s those chummy doubts again.

They quickly turn into Why am I wasting my time? Why did I think I could do this? Who am I kidding anyway?

Luckily for me, during that almost year, I did a number of things to train (and trick) myself into letting all that go. First was a commitment to write every day. Some days I struggle to get fifty words. Other days the work pours out of me. Second was doing NaNoWriMo last November. The project I chose was a genre novel. Set in my own made up world, I found I was able to write very quickly, without much concern for quality. I had a lot of fun and I made the 50K word limit easily. Of course, if I decide to develop that manuscript, I know the real work is yet to begin.

Fast forward to April this year.

The gnawing had started to become an irritation. A particular character from one of my short pieces hadn’t stopped talking to me since September. So I decided to join Camp NaNoWriMo to see how much background work I could get done. I managed a small amount, but still resisted committing to a novel.

But now, I can’t put it off any longer. This bug has infested every fibre. I can’t get through a single day without thinking about it.

So, I’m revisiting Camp NaNoWriMo in July. I have about 10K words floating around already, but they are little more than musings and a beginning, which will likely not end up being THE beginning. I’m still attempting the full 50K (new) words though, because I want to push through to the end of a draft.

Last year I bypassed my censor by writing something pretty much off the top of my head. With this project I will eventually need to pay more attention to things like realism and the first person voice that drives the narrative. But I don’t want to get hung up on all that straight away. I also have a tendency to reword as I go, so I’m using a program that hides my work and stops me from editing until I’ve reached a pre-set word count. Hopefully the narrative will keep ticking over and I’ll gain the luxury of ‘playing’ with various plot points, characters, etc. as I go.

I hope that by tricking myself into not caring about quality, I will find a few previously undiscovered little shrooms that will multiply. If I’m lucky, they will be the ones that grow the story in interesting and unexpected ways.

Swim, Swim Little Fishies

Where do your ideas come from? When I hear this question, a mantra strikes up in my head. It goes something like this:

‘They’re my ideas and you can’t have them.’

It plays on repeat and is often accompanied by an overwhelming urge to laugh maniacally whilst gnawing on my forearm.

Then I get over myself.

Honestly, no-one is trying to steal my ideas. Well maybe that guy is – the one slavering over my answer, pencil poised over his notebook – but I know about him.

Paranoia dealt with, I contemplate the possibility that people are genuinely interested in my answer. And I have to admit, if I were in a Q & A with someone whose work I found stupefyingly different (in a good way), I’d be the first to shoot my hand up and ask that self same question. I’d even swallow the embarrassment of being such a blatant fan-girl, at least until someone else was chosen to ask a question.

So, just on the off-chance that someone out there might want to know, here is a guest blog I wrote for Margaret River Press, which talks about how one of my stories came about.

The secret is that there are no secrets. But there are some rules that I follow. Well more guidelines than rules, but you get the idea.

Because the things I find inspiring come from myriad places, and I have a memory like a sieve, I make it my business to record things.

The clown pictured above is a prime example. He’s strung up in the front yard of a house just around the corner from where I live. I’ve played with the contrast, brightness and colours in the image, but the day I took the photo was overcast, the colours much more muted. The olive jumpsuit looked more khaki, the rusty spots appeared brown. In my mind’s eye, this clown was wearing combat fatigues.

Three things interested me straight off the bat.

First, the clown left outside in the elements made me think that regardless of circumstances clowns often appear falsely happy. Coupled with that, the fact that the face was turned away from the street, perhaps hiding his truer feelings. And lastly, the idea that this clown had also served in the armed forces.

So far I haven’t found the clown’s story, and I may never, but he’s there, in the periphery, if I need him.

My advice? Hoard anything and everything you find interesting. Doesn’t matter if it’s a particular speech pattern, a weird picture, an obscure or just plain wrong use of words (advertising signs are great for this in that they often don’t mean what they are supposed to). Record it.

When you get home, pool all those little fish together. Let them swim, maybe breed because the deeper your pool, the more likely your hybrid babies will be viable.

After the Rain

Here’s a hypothetical. You’ve just finished your first piece of fully contained writing. So, what now?

First up, congratulations. There’s a lot of very hard work involved in polishing something to the point at which you are willing to say it’s finished. Not only have there likely been several reworks, it’s also probable that you’ve had to sift through the often differing comments friends and / or peers have thrown at you, trying to decide which, if any, you should incorporate into your piece. By the time you’ve agonised over how much that might make it someone else’s piece instead of yours, some will have shoved the pesky thing in the circular file and resolved to start again.

But not you. You’ve done the work and you’re ready to say goodbye.

Second. Don’t panic. Sending your work out does sometimes feel like packing your five-year-old off to army boot camp. You never really know how well your piece will be received and the last thing you want is to appear stupid, so do your homework. Read the type of thing your prospective publisher wants. Usually it’s a pretty simple thing to look up their website and browse. They often have a list of titles they’ve recently published and / or material available online. If it’s a magazine, get yourself a few recent copies and read it.

If you’re prepared to do that, you’ll already have avoided one of the biggest pitfalls many beginning authors make – sending their work to the wrong place. If you’re writing science fiction, don’t send your work to a romance imprint unless you’re damn sure they’re looking for hybrid work that incorporates both.

Third, competitions are the one of the best places to begin sending your work, especially if you are working in shorter forms. Poetry, memoir, short story, creative non-fiction – they are all well represented in both Australian and overseas competitions. Even novella and novel length manuscripts are considered in specific areas. But again, be selective and make sure you’ve a reasonable idea of the type of work they are looking for. And honestly, stick to the guidelines. If you’ve gone to the trouble to write a full-length novel manuscript and the specific competition you’re entering asks for single-sided, 12 point New Times Roman type, with double spacing and 3cm margins, don’t send in something in Comic Sans, packed so tight you need a magnifying glass to read it. No matter how brilliant your manuscript might be, it will be binned without remorse and your reputation will be blackened.

And lastly, even if your piece doesn’t receive a monetary prize, a commendation, or make a shortlist or longlist, don’t feel that your effort has been wasted. If you have done your research well, there are sometimes unexpected rewards. Even though your piece may not be exactly right for a particular competition or publication at that particular time, who’s to say the judge or editor won’t like it enough to remember it, talk about it with other editors, judges or agents.

Let’s face it. As a new or relatively unknown author, it’s as much about exposure as anything else.

If you’re patient and persistent, you’ll wake up one morning to find that like the intricate weaving of a web visible only after rain, your efforts will have made tiny connections in the minds of people who matter and only in hindsight will the threads become clear.

Drawing Blood from Dead Trees

I want to talk a little bit about process, at least in terms of plotters vs. pantsers. If you’ve done a little writing, you’ll no doubt know what these terms mean. If not, well, a plotter is someone who meticulously plans their story, whereas a pantser might start with a character, setting or theme, and build a plot as they write.

There’s a popular theory out there that popular fiction writers are only ever plotters and that literary writers are only ever pantsers.

What a load of codswhallop!

In my experience of writing both popular fiction and more literary work, I’m here to tell you that writing of any stripe is about finding what works for you – and here’s the fun part. The balance of it may well change, depending on what you’re writing.

When I’m working in popular fiction, which for me is speculative in one form or another, a certain amount of planning is needed in order to build a world that is believable. Specificity of detail is paramount in describing differences between the real world and the one you’re creating. It is only logical to have some idea of how those differences operate, of how they might affect the way your characters would believably interact.

In my more literary work I generally begin with character and / or voice. That means that I often don’t really know what I’m writing about until I’ve completed a first draft, let it sit, and done some serious soul searching. Although those stories evolve more organically, plot is still an important ingredient in the mix and in subsequent drafting, themes are enhanced often through changes to the plot.

Basically, if the premise doesn’t stand up the story will fall over.

I would contend that any form of fiction needs some planning, whether it be certain discoveries that need to be made to move the story further (as in crime fiction), or some poignant detail, requiring meticulous research, that lends authenticity to a piece.

Whatever type of writing you are doing, there will always be times when background planning is needed before the actual writing takes place.

The silly part about it all is that plotting or pantsering is not what makes great writing.

Yep, you heard it right.

Great writing isn’t about whether you plan everything or wing it every time. It’s about whether or not your work connects with your reader. And the only way to do that is to evoke emotional truth.

To my mind as long as you stay true to who your characters are within the parameters of your story world, you’ve got the right balance, regardless of how you got there.

The secret is the ability to draw blood from the trunks of seemingly dead trees. You do that and you’ve got a guaranteed audience every time.

Why Write?

It’s a question we’ve all been asked, probably more than once. Why do we write? You’d think the answer would be easy. We write because we love it. That’s what people expect to hear, perhaps for good reason. It makes us easier to categorise, to identify with.

For me it’s not always so simple. Like the colours of the cuttlefish, my reasons change depending on my current state of creative well-being. I always struggle to give a definitive answer, but I’m willing to give it go.

When I was six, my mother had her first nervous breakdown. Her ability to deal with the day-to-day was severely limited. Her moods could change between one moment and the next. She might laugh at a joke, only to immediately be reduced to tears at the cruelty of it. Yet in a real life crisis, she was always the one who could be counted on to act with a level head!

And she lived for family – at least when she was well.

As an adult I understand a lot more about her illness and how much of a struggle the everyday was for her. She latched onto my father, brother and I as a means to keep herself stable. In some ways we were her lifeline. Yet in order to feel secure, she became something of a martyr to her other needs. When she took up painting later in life she saw herself as a daubing novice whose work was worthless. Instead of gaining the emotional release she needed through painting, she chose never to pursue it, which to me is the biggest tragedy of her life – and one of mine too – as it was through her paintings that I learned something of the woman she was before her illness changed her.

It was during that sometimes confused, if still happy, childhood, that I first began to write. It was my way of venting my own emotions – emotions I was often careful to hide for fear of tipping my mother down the rabbit hole into depression. Those pages were my salvation in some ways.

I found a kind of cathartic release. But it was only after she passed away that I decided I didn’t want to get to the end of my own life without pursuing something I felt, on a spiritual level, defined me.

When my daughter came along, I became enamoured of her to the point that I lost myself to a certain degree. It’s a common thing and I don’t for one second regret any of it. But I reached a point at which a bout of my own depression hit. It wasn’t clinical and it didn’t stop me from functioning, but I wasn’t as happy as I should have been. I tried various activities, all of which I liked, but none of which lifted me out of my morass.

One day it hit me. I’d stopped writing. Sure, I’d done it before, several times, but never for more than a few months. This time it was more than seven years.

I’d turned into my mother without even realising it.

Okay, so it wasn’t that dramatic, and it embarrasses me to think that I didn’t see it earlier, but for all intents and purposes, I’d let my emotional outlet go in favour of family without a second thought.

I felt better as soon as I began to write again. That was almost five years ago and while I constantly battle guilt, fear and shame issues, I know that the added life experience has carried forward into my creative work and I’m a much happier, healthier person than I was when I first began.

That was the answer I used to give. I’d sometimes add that I’m driven to write the kind of stories I feel need to be told. Occasionally the listener appeared to understand. More often than not my answer was met with a maniacal eyebrow twitch, or involuntary curl of the lip.

Now, when I’m asked the inevitable question, I answer the way most of us do. The way I’m expected to answer: I write because I love it.

These days I find it’s not so far from the truth.

Jumping the Gun

When we first start writing (and for some of us, after we’ve been doing it for a good while) there’s a huge temptation to show our work. Don’t worry, it’s an entirely natural thing. After all, we’ve worked hard to birth our brainchild and it’s always nice to gain some sort of recognition.

So we show our family. Then our friends. If we’re lucky enough to have caring and supportive varieties of both, our egos will be stroked and we’ll need to be careful not to strut too obviously, for fear of being cut down and served up for the next Sunday roast. But until that happens, we’ll feel as if we’re invincible.

Unfortunately, unless we’re inhumanly gifted, we’re not immune to criticism – especially of the scathing kind.

Somewhere along the line, if you show too many people, the wrong person will see your work before it is ready. Sometimes it’s before you even know what you’re writing about.

I know. That sounds completely ludicrous. How can someone claim to be a writer if they don’t know what they’re writing about?

It happens all the time.

I used to plot meticulously and I would always know what my story themes were right from the get go. As a consequence, my writing fell flat. It was contrived and mechanical and basically, I sucked. Don’t get me wrong, that approach is highly successful for many people. It just so happens that I’m not one of them.

My point is that I am often unsure of what I’m writing about until I’ve read over my first draft, let it stew for a bit and reworked it several times. Sometimes I’ll have something pretty close to what I thought I’d have. But the majority of the time, I don’t. I’ll find things in there I never even suspected.

The temptation to show people my work, even those whose opinions I highly value, is often strong during that initial drafting process. It’s largely because I doubt myself all the time. Trouble is, by showing my work too early, I get many different viewpoints, all of which are valid, but none of which really help because they vary so much in the assumptions the readers have made.

I end up becoming so conflicted about what to do that I struggle to finish the piece to my own satisfaction.

Take the sketch above. This is something that took me about an hour to complete. Now I’m the first to admit it’s no masterpiece. But for someone who has never taken a drawing class and hasn’t done a sketch of any description for twenty, twenty-five years, I’m pretty pleased with it. But I couldn’t for the life of me get a second eye to work, and if I’d shown it to anyone who understood drawing at that point, it might have been ripped to shreds. Since this was drawn for my twelve-year-old daughter, it didn’t matter. She was delighted with the idea of the eye-patch and I had a heap of fun finishing it for her.

In my experience, it’s better to finish a piece, understand what it is you think you have, and work towards honing it as much as you can before you seek advice. Sometimes it might be friends or family that give you the confidence to keep chipping away, especially when you’re feeling particularly vulnerable. Eventually it will be peers and / or editors whose opinions will help.

If you’re lucky you’ll have found a supportive group of writers whose understanding of your work and the craft itself is sufficient to give you the kind of guidance you need. Just don’t fall into the trap of submitting work to magazines, competitions, etc. until you are convinced that you’ve done the best you possibly can. Because art is subjective, your best might not be enough, but at least you’ll have given yourself the best chance possible to succeed.