Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum

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I felt a tingle through my body when ‘Offred’ read out this iconic, yet largely made-up phrase, in Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale. Not because it’s latin but because its translation speaks volumes.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

It’s a motto for life, I’m sure. But also, for writing.

When we write, whether it’s fiction or not, we are putting a part of ourselves into the world. To be enjoyed, acclaimed, critiqued and scrutinised. It takes some kind of thick skin to put yourself out there, time and time again.

But what if we’re not even at the point of putting our work out into the world?

I read a tweet the other day from someone whose opinion I value. This person mentioned how they cannot stand when certain experiences in life are used for plot points in a book. That it’s in some way cheating, lazy and insensitive.

As soon as I read the tweet my heart sank. I felt like this person was directing their tweet at me. Even though they hadn’t read any of my work.

It made me question everything I’ve been working towards.

It made me want to quit the draft and start on something new.

I sat with this discomfort for a while, and then I read a post by Marie McLean, who was clearly going through similar feeling as my own, though for different reasons. And what she said spoke to me, about not giving up. About seeing this thing through to the end.

I knew when I started writing this book that it was shrouded in controversy. In fact, it was part of the reason I wanted to write it in the first place. I wanted my fiction to be about something real. Something that people could relate to, in whatever abstract way that may be.

It’s never going to please everyone. Even people I like.

I’ve since come out the other side, and I think my writing will be all the better for it. Perhaps I will even strengthen the concept with these comments in mind.

Regardless of how far my book goes, at least I’ll know I never gave up.

Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.

 

 

My new home office space

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We’ve been in our house for nearly three years, and until just this week, our home office/study was really just a junk room with a book case and a desk.

As you can imagine, clutter and junk doesn’t exactly lend itself to motivation or clear thinking.

For a long time we’ve been talking about getting it set up properly. When we were in the planning stages of building the house we went to a well known cabinet maker and requested a quote for a built in desk with surrounding book case and shelves. We were quite willing to spend a lot of money to get it done, but I suspect the woman who sketched up our plans thought we were just wasting her time. They never came through with the quote and once the building process started, it became the least of our worries.

Now that I’ve returned to work part time from maternity leave, with some days working from home, it seemed an opportune time to get the office set up. We took a trip to Bunnings and picked out a 2.2 metre timber bench top. It’s big enough to seat two quite comfortably, with space to spread out. I also nabbed two trestle legs from Ikea, (on sale for $9.99 each) and we bought the chairs from Kmart.

Put it all together and we’ve created an affordable, modern and clean space with light, natural finishes. A place that I actually enjoy being in and can see myself getting a lot of writing done.

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I particularly love the raw timber and monochrome look, so am thrilled with how it turned out.

 

 

The Richell Prize for Emerging Writers 2017

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Just a quick update today to say, at the eleventh hour, I decided to enter my manuscript in the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers.

I decided to put myself out there, despite feeling very strongly that my work isn’t ‘right’ for this kind of competition. Australia is ripe with budding authors and I’m not at all disheartened by this. Completely the opposite in fact. It’s heartening to know that there is so much talent and passion for the arts here in Australia, and I for one am excited to see what comes out of Richell. Even if it’s not something written by me.

The Writer’s Room: Jodie How

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Writing can often be a solo journey. Though family and friends are ‘supportive’ of our desire to write, it’s really only other writers that can truly understand what it means to be a writer. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to join a physical writer’s group. But I’ve been so fortunate to meet an array of wonderful writers online.

Because I feel so grateful to have had the access and opportunity to engage with such wonderful, like minded people, I thought it would be nice to invite some of them over to the blog to share a bit about themselves. I’m calling this series, ‘The Writer’s Room’.

I hope this virtual Writer’s Room helps other emerging writers like myself find new people to engage with online, (and maybe even in person!), learn some tips and tricks, or just feel more confident about their own approaches when hearing from other people who are also navigating the world of writing.

I’m so very pleased to welcome my first guest and very good friend, Jodie How.

Jodie lives in the South West of Western Australia with her husband, five-year-old son, cat and dog. She is an avid consumer of a large range of stories, from very old classics, biographies and romance through to modern psychological thrillers and horror fiction (including everything in between).

Jodie has been writing part-time for five years and has recently been print published in the anthology, Twisted Tales 2016. She writes both short and long fiction, poetry and online articles. You can find her at Twitter and motionandmusings.com

 

  1. First of all, can you talk us through your writing process a little bit? 

I’m an ‘emotional writer’ so my writing process isn’t especially ‘clean cut’ and my stories are often heavy.

I rarely start with a well-considered structure but I’m not a complete ‘pantser’ either. I always start writing a story with a definite character in mind (including their name), a very general idea of plot and theme and one or two prominent, defined emotions that will underpin the story.

Once I’ve finished the first draft, I edit and rewrite profusely. In between redrafts, I request feedback and gather critiques from various people.

Generally, my work explores one or two central emotions over a big idea or dilemma. My writing is, above all else, character focused.

 

  1. Why do you write and what do you hope to get out of it?

I write for many reasons. One reason is that I just cannot not write. I get very grumpy and hard to live with when I haven’t written. In fact, I don’t function well at all. Writing is a positive creative outlet for me.

I write because creating a truly wonderful story feels almost impossible for me to achieve. The sheer challenge of reaching storytelling excellence through writing excites and motivates me.

And I write because I’m a curious soul, a deep thinker and a deep feeler who must explore both the world and the human psyche – endlessly.

I’m passionate about stories and their important role in our lives. I’m awed by how rich combinations of language can convey such depth of meaning. I’m fascinated by written communication and how it can string human hearts together.

I want my stories to touch the hearts of readers and help provide some level of emotional healing. I long for my work to provoke depth of thought.

It would be a dream come true to be print published more that half a dozen times.

If history is anything to go by, I’m expecting that writing will open all sort of doors for me and I’m so excited about discovering these opportunities.

I hope that writing will take me around the world. I’m itching to immerse myself in other cultures, make far-reaching connections and just be a blessed partaker of this diverse life in all its beauty, both close and far from home.

If my writing ever leads to collaborative projects with other writers or artists from other industries, I will consider myself died and gone to heaven!

 

  1. Who or what are some of your biggest influencers?

As for all writers, favourite authors are a big influence on my desire to write. (I have too many literary idols to list!)

The ambitious part of my personality is a huge influencer on my productivity because I just have to feel like I’m moving forward. Even if the goal is tiny and it takes me a long time to achieve it (which it always does) – I still must achieve. I’m just wired to win, I guess – even though I don’t always win.

I don’t want this to sound overly spiritual and abstract but destiny is huge for me. It’s something I believe in and am very aware of. Knowing that writing is a big part of what I’m meant to do with my life keeps me focused. It makes me get up from falls time and time again. (I’m always falling, getting up, dusting myself off and putting the boxing gloves back on, ready to fight again.)

Past successes and past failures influence me too. I try my best to use them as leverage to push me forward.

 

  1. What sort of training / study have you undertaken as part of your writing journey? And have you found it useful?

I’m a ‘Jill of all trades’ so I don’t have any special writing qualifications, to date. I only committed seriously to writing five years ago, so I did a lot of other things in life before finding my real passion, which is writing.

I’ve done countless workshops, a few short courses and one weekend writers retreat. All of these have given me something new to apply to my writing, which has ultimately propelled me forward. Even listening to author interviews at writers festivals have been hugely educational and encouraging.

 

  1. Do you have any advice for other emerging writers?

Aha! The real question here is, ‘what’s the word count limit’? I’ll try to keep it short.

Recognise and capitalise on every single opportunity that comes your way. Grab each one in a full body hug and see it through.

Keep comparison in your closet. She’s a useless bitch.

Pay attention to, and effectively use, your gut instinct – not only for your writing but also for your writing journey.

Work hard and never, ever give up. Redraft your work until your eyes bleed, and then redraft it again.

Stick with your characters – don’t abandon them just because you can’t nail their story.

Be brave. Put your work out there. Now. Don’t wait until next year. Start submitting your writing today. Professional feedback is invaluable.

 

 

Weekend Wanderings – June Long Weekend

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We’re just off the back of a long weekend here in South Australia, for the Queen’s Birthday. Thanks Liz! It’s the pay-off we get for continuing to fall under the monarchy as opposed to putting our big-girl pants on and becoming a republic.

Though I didn’t technically get a ‘day off’ because I don’t work on Monday’s (not in any paid capacity at least), I did take the day off of my usual writing schedule (usually Monday-Friday). I made a conscious decision to immerse myself in my family, and revel in having my husband home for an extra day out of the week. When your usual company is a 10 month old who spends his days drooling, eating and sleeping, having extra ‘adult time’ becomes a prized commodity.

We’d been away for a night visiting my in-laws on the Saturday, and we decided to use Sunday and Monday to get some long overdue projects finished in the garden. You see, I’ve been without a vegetable garden for about 6 months now. Something I never thought would happen once I’d finally got them planted up when we moved into the house in late 2014.

Any pretense of a summer patch was disassembled when we went overseas for the month of December 2016. I didn’t plant anything knowing I wouldn’t be home to water for that time, and there was no way we could rely on any sort of rainfall to get us through. Couple that with the fact that my raised beds made from hay bales were in desperate need of replacing, we made the decision to pull them up and replace them with something more permanent.

Here we are 6 months later and only just managing to fit the pallet beds my brother made with interior walls, ready for soil. So, two of the four I had envisioned are now done and ready for planting. We also constructed some steps to lead down into our garden, which you can see in the background of the below picture. These still need to be filled, but after 2.5 years living on a hill with a slope down to our garden, this progress feels like a win.

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Though I had a jolly time playing with the drill and other tools, that one day off of my routine set me into a mini motivational melt down, meaning I didn’t really get anything written on my manuscript until Thursday. Though it’s only three days that I’ve deviated from my schedule, it feels like an inconceivable loss. If I want to meet my target of completing this draft by 30 October, I’ll need to up my minimum word count, or pick up an extra day of writing. None of this is catastrophic, and I don’t regret spending the day the way I did.

It just occurs to me that, in all aspects of work, schedule slippage occurs. But for a writer, it really is up to us to keep on top of our own milestones and deadlines.

I’m determined to meet my self-imposed deadline, because if I end up getting published, the deadlines will no longer be self-imposed.

Sometimes the words just flow…

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I want to tell you a secret.

Sometimes my fingers fly so fast across the keyboard, they can barely keep up with the thoughts and ideas circumnavigating my brain.

These are the times when I am in ‘the zone’ of my novel. Something has just clicked together like a missing puzzle piece and the rest just seems to fall into place. It’s almost like an avalanche, where one small change or idea has the power to influence everything else in its path.

This quite often happens when I’m layering exposition. I can get lost in the spatial awareness of my characters, or of the colour of someones eyes, the way their hair kinks out just so. These are the little details I love to write. These small details that give the reader just enough to start building a world or an image in their mind. Enough that they can be immersed in place and time without being told where, or who or what.

But then, at other times, I sit at my desk and I watch the clock slowly tick by. Writing words feels like pulling weeds. A job that has to be done, but it feels never-ending. There is no joy in these moments. I’ve had a few of these days in the past. But they’ve been fewer and farther between lately. I equate this to two changes:

  1. I am writing more regularly than ever before (excluding NaNoWriMo), and
  2. I’m writing less words.

I’m not writing less words overall, just less words each time I sit down to write. I’ve given myself permission not to reach a certain number of words if they aren’t coming. I allow myself a bit of time to see if it will be a flow or flop kind of day, and then I let it happen naturally.

These days, I’m fitting writing around a baby, so I don’t have the luxury of wiling away hours. My words need to be on point and quick. If it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen.

But that’s OK, because there’s always tomorrow.

On Being a Masterclasser: Conflict

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In Masterclass, Fiona stressed the importance of conflict.

As a consumer, I know how important it is to be immersed in the conflict immediately. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s picked up a book from the shelf of my local book store, opened it to the first page and read the first paragraph or so. I’m also probably not the only person to have placed the book back on the shelf in search for something else more grabbing.

However, it wasn’t until this was pointed out to me that I realised just how important those first lines are. But not just the first line of the book, the first line of each chapter, even the first line of each paragraph.

Going back over my manuscript after Masterclass, it was evident just how boring my writing came across. I was trying to tell the story, rather than show it and it was taking me far too long to get to the conflict. I felt like I was reading a letter to a new pen pal that was trying to fit in all the information of a past, and did nothing to move us into the present.

Looking at my writing with fresh eyes, it has been easy to change tactics. I simply deleted the first paragraph or so and this brought the story straight into the thick of things.

Here’s an example of the same opening paragraphs of chapter two of my current WIP.

Before:

Emily had been working as a cashier at a supermarket in Rundle Mall for a couple of years, and her best friend had secured a retail job nearby. They had decided to head overseas for a gap year between school and university.

Two weeks before they were due to fly out, and three hours into her six hour shift, Emily felt her pocket vibrate with a new text message.

“That’ll be eighty six dollars and ninety five cents.” Emily said to her customer.

The woman, middle aged and determined not to smile at Emily or give her any eye contact, pulled a card from her purse and waved it in the air.

After:

“That’ll be eighty six dollars and ninety five cents.” Emily said in a voice so sweet she could have been dribbling honey.

Her customer, a middle aged woman, seemed determined not to smile at Emily or give her any eye contact at all. She tapped at her phone during the entire transaction, barely grunting as Emily attempted to make small-talk. The woman pulled a card from her purse and waved it in the air.

The background information I was conveying upfront; that the character worked at a supermarket, that she was saving for an overseas trip and she was in her late teens, can all be determined through the actions of the scene, rather than by point blank information dumping.

Though a supermarket transaction can hardly be considered a wild adventure or conflicting situation, it’s an experience that shows a lot about the character. It also puts the reader straight into the scene, instead of mulling around the outskirts.

By considering action over information, conflict over description, it’s much easier to set a scene and allow the character to be felt.

At Masterclass, we did a short exercise to really hone in on the opening scenes of a story. We had ten minutes to write an opening that dove straight into conflict. This exercise really helped me to put the theory of story telling, and of showing not telling, into practice.

Click here to read my opening for that exercise.

 

Writing Exercises

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I love a good writing exercise. In fact, one of the main reasons I enjoyed studying towards my Masters of Creative Writing was because of the exercises and homework. There’s something about expanding the boundaries of your normal practice that really helps to explore and stretch your skills as a writer. As well as that, playing with words can be fun.

Of course, you don’t need to be a formal student to enjoy writing exercises. If you have better discipline than I do, you could plan and participate in your own practice and achieve much the same enjoyment and development. I suspect being a part of a writers group would support this kind of approach as well.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a writers group, but I do have a wonderful network of friends and writing peers online, who encourage me to expand myself further every day. (Hi Twitter pals *waves*).

Nonetheless, I’m making a commitment to do more writing exercises, whether by joining an online challenge like over at my friend Jodi’s site, picking up on a prompt on Twitter, or opening one of my many writing books and resources and selecting a challenge. The key, like anything, is to do a little bit, a lot of the time. “Little and often”, as one of my friends put it recently.

Yep, thats exactly it.

I’d love to know what writing tools and exercises other writers out there use. How often do you do them? Do you find them helpful? Where do they come from?

Let me know in the comments.

Happy writing, friends. X

On Being a Masterclasser: Character

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One of the main things Fiona focused on during masterclass was character. In commercial fiction, character is key, character is plot. Most readers of commercial fiction want to be immersed in the story, they want to feel that they are embodying your character, or walking alongside them. This is why getting character right is vital to the success of your novel.

I’ll admit, my main protagonist came to me almost fully formed. I invested a lot of thinking time into her. But this came at a high cost to all the other characters. Even my protagonist’s daughter, who is the other main character, wasn’t well thought out.

While you don’t need to know a lot about every single character that features in your novel, if you want the main ones to be successful, it helps to give them each a profile; some things that differentiate them from others, like quirky turns of phrase that highlight their background, a unique look, an intriguing habit or tick.

I have quite a few characters, but only four that will hold court for the majority of the book. Before I started the final draft of my manuscript, I created a profile for each of these characters. I use Scrivener and fortunately there’s a built in character profile template with the software. The template includes:

  • Name of Character
  • Role in story
  • Occupation
  • Physical description (Fiona suggests sticking to just 2 or 3 and letting the reader fill in the blanks)
  • Personality
  • Habits/mannerisms
  • Background
  • Internal conflicts
  • External conflicts

I used bullet points so as not to get bogged down in details that would either be irrelevant, or hard to remember as I work my way through the story.

I also did a google image search using keywords like ‘middle aged brunette’ and chose one that resembled the character I had in mind. By including a photo I now have a reference point for any time that I want to layer a scene with exposition about the character, that will always be consistent.

On being a Masterclasser: Overview

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That’s what we’re known as, masterclassers. That is, the some 200 or so people who have taken the plunge and signed up for Fiona McIntosh’s five day intensive writing course. I know lots of my fellow writing peers are keen to hear how the course went, and I’m itching to share everything I’ve learnt. But not only would it be impossible for me to impart the wisdom of a seasoned pro like Fiona in the same enthralling way that she does, but it also wouldn’t be fair. She’s been in the biz for 17 years, and this is a big part of her job, her livelihood. I’m not about to take something like that away from her, or any writer.

However, over the next few posts I will share some of the highlights of the masterclass and some of the work I created whilst there.

Fiona’s masterclass is completely targeted at commercial genre fiction. So if you’re someone who writes non-fiction or literary fiction, well you may want to stop reading now. (But, please don’t!). Lots of her advice would transcend other areas of writing, but the course itself is really homing in on the commercial stuff. That is the stuff that is mass marketed and mass produced.

For me, this was a real eye-opener in terms of comparing to my previous Masters study and this. I won’t go into it, but if you are someone who wants to be traditionally published in commercial fiction, maybe don’t bother with the Masters like I did. Do some courses at your local writers centre, or take a look at this Masterclass. It really is all you need to get going.

Another great resource if you can’t afford the investment of a course like this is to pick up a writers resource like Fiona’s How To Write Your Blockbuster, or even Stephen King’s On Writing.

Some top tips for getting serious about writing:

  • Set up a writing space with good lighting.
  • Use a proper office chair with good support for your posture – kitchen chairs just won’t cut it. (I’ll admit, I’m guilty of laying in bed with my laptop, this is a BIG no no).
  • Use the best equipment you can afford and upgrade regularly. I use a Mac and Scrivener, but you don’t have to fork out a lot for decent equipment. Microsoft Word is actually the format publishers will want the manuscript in anyway.
  • Back up regularly. I am terribly guilty of not doing this. But I do have an external hard drive and I’m going to try and remember to use it. It would be devastating to lose your work.
  • Here’s the big one: Make time to write every day that you have committed to writing. Note how I didn’t say to make time to write every day period. That’s because, as Fiona says, you need a break. Writing every day can lead to burn out, just like writing loads and loads of words over 2 or 3 days can equally lead to burn out. You want to be getting into a good writing habit, and you want to sustain it. Writing in big chunks more infrequently won’t work in the long run.
  • On the days you’re not writing, let it go. Don’t think about your WIP. Don’t rewrite it in your mind. Don’t plot and plan what you’re going to write until you’re actually sitting in your chair during your dedicated writing time. Give your brain a break and enjoy your time off.
  • Exercise regularly. If you’re sitting at a computer for long periods, most days, it’s important to get out and enjoy the sunshine, get some fresh air and stretch out your muscles and bones.
  • Give up television. I know, this one hurts (some of us more than others). You don’t really need to give up TV completely, but do consider where your time is going and how enriching those hours in front of the TV really are. If you’re watching great quality drama, beautiful movies and intriguing series, by all means, set aside time for them – especially if they are relevant to your writing (era, scenery, character, etc). But do reconsider the trash. Stay away from the reality rubbish that really doesn’t serve you. It’s all contrived anyway.
  • Surround yourself with support. Whether it be a writing group, a book club or just a few friends that can cheer you on and bounce ideas around with you, support is crucial.
  • Get to know your local librarian and book seller. These people are in the know and can be your greatest allies when it comes to selling your books. They’re also great resources for research, and as potential beta readers. Librarians and book sellers generally love books, so it’s safe to say they’d be happy to help a local writer in their endeavours to get published.
  • Know your genre and read it. A lot.
  • Understand the tropes of your genre.
  • Find publishers that specialise in your genre.
  • Don’t let writing define or overwhelm you. It’s OK to be passionate about your writing, but it’s not all there is.
  • Don’t use the truth. Even if you’re writing fiction based on fact. Commercial fiction exists to entertain, so don’t be afraid to dramatise and embellish your story.
  • Relationships are key in commercial fiction. It is human nature to be drawn to interesting and dynamic people, to their conflicts and their emotions.

Over the next few posts I’ll focus a bit on the various elements of writing. Including character, description, generating ideas and publishing.