Writers’ Retreat at Aldinga Beach

One of the many perks of participating in the Fiona McIntosh Masterclass is the growing network of writers you get to connect with. Fiona has set up a closed Masterclass Alumni facebook group, where we can share successes and coordinate state based meet-ups. It’s through this group that I was fortunate enough to be invited to a South Australia Writers Retreat, hosted by two of Fiona’s early masterclassers. It was located at a gorgeous 1960s Holiday House overlooking the beach at Aldinga.

For anyone familiar with South Australia’s landscape, Aldinga is a far cry from my home region: the Barossa Valley. But the retreat started on a Friday night so I only had to drive from work in the city; about half the distance compared to coming from home.

The weather was horrendous. Autumn finally decided to show up, and she did so with gusto. The wind and rain whipped my car around and it was far too dark to see the house numbers by the time I arrived. Thankfully, someone else stopped ahead of me and looked to be scouting the area, and with two sets of headlights on the road below, our hosts braved the wind and rain to stand on the balcony and wave us down.

Once I was inside, dry and wearing my ugg boots, we all sat down to a lovely dinner of homemade pumpkin soup and bread rolls. The perfect accompaniment for cold weather and getting to know everyone. There were six of us in total that first night (plus the dog and cat), with another to join the following day for the write in.

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The balcony between showers

With full bellies, we moved to the lounge to settle in and watch, The Last Masterclass on DVD. For those of you that don’t know, Fiona took over the masterclass schedule from Bryce Courtenay after he was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2012. It was wonderful to see the master himself, his passion and humbling attitude towards his life, work and ultimately his death. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend watching it.

It was an early night for me, being wiped from a day at work and the long drive. The next day would be all about writing.

I woke at 7.30am, a wonderful sleep in for me, being used to a toddler waking me much earlier most days. The other guests were up and it wasn’t long before we all congregated in the kitchen to stare out of the window between downpours to get a glimpse of the ocean. We had free reign to help ourselves to tea, coffee, toast, cereal and loads of fruit. There was no schedule, it was simply an opportunity for us to concentrate on our work without the interruptions of home.

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Not a bad backdrop to work to.

I dove straight into the revision of draft #4 of my manuscript. However, I found sitting for long periods of time quite intense, so like a fidgeting child I kept getting up to walk around, stretch or make a cup of tea. When sitting at the table got too much, I moved to the couch with a rug and read through a couple of chapters of the manuscript I am beta reading at the moment. By half past twelve, tummies were grumbling and it was time to make a sandwich and have some more soup.

I settled down to review another chapter after lunch, but by halfway through I was getting fidgety again. So when Sandy mentioned she was going for a stroll outside, I decided to join her. Wind or not, I needed to stretch my legs.

It was a brisk walk as the rain picked up again, but it did the trick. I was certainly awake after being blown about for 15 minutes. The rest of the afternoon flew by and before I knew it, I’d revised five chapters.

 

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We headed out to a cafe for dinner and had a lovely time. Once back at the house, we settled in with tea and fruit and lazed on the couches to chat. I was the first to bed again that night, relishing the chance for undisrupted sleep.

I woke at 6am Sunday morning after a lovely long sleep, but feeling famished. I got up and made myself some tea and toast, and pottered about, mostly eyeing the view. The rain had finally eased off!

Because I was keen to get back to my family, I headed off at 9am. It would take me an hour and forty minutes to get home, and I knew I’d have lots to do when I got there, so no time to dawdle.

Overall, the weekend was really valuable. I met some wonderful, supportive women whom I know I will be able to call on in future if I ever need advice or someone to read over my work. Though a full day of writing was intense, it forced me to be productive and to keep the rhythm of writing going. And though we were at a beach house, I’m secretly grateful that it was a blustery time, as it kept us inside and focused.

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Fred the Cat

 

Taking the next step

Sending ones first manuscript into the world is no easy step. Like the wavering toddle of a baby learning to walk, learning to hush your inner critic long enough to send a file to someone other than your best friend or mother, can be very daunting. I should know, in the past year I have taken a number of steps like this on my walk to publication.

I started my book in late 2014. A project with no expectations or limitations. I’d always dreamed of being a writer, but I had a job I loved and a comfortable, reasonably carefree life. I wanted to see if I could write a book.

It turns out I can! Though, not a particularly good one. At the time, that didn’t matter, because nobody was going to read it. When I decided to take the next logical step in the process and revise the draft, I made a number of revelations, not least of all that maybe I actually did want to make something real of this story.

I signed up to a Masters of Creative Writing. I applied for Fiona McIntosh’s Commercial Fiction Masterclass. I wrote and rewrote my story until it became something I could almost be proud of.

Through each of these meanderings, I shared a chapter here and there. I took on board feedback and criticism and tried to apply parts of these to the whole. Earlier this year, I got my manuscript to a point where I thought, I need someone other than myself to read this and tell me where it’s not working. I was too close to it now and needed a fresh perspective.

But the thought of someone else reading my work in full was daunting. It was a necessary step, I knew, but one that seemed much harder than all the ones before it. Sharing the whole manuscript would be like stripping off my clothes and standing before a crowd, letting them see all there was to me, with no coverings to hide my scars and imperfections.

When I nervously hit send on the email, a miraculous thing happened; I came up with a new story idea. Just. Like. That. It was as if my brain suddenly freed up an entire shelf’s worth of space for something new. The second I released this huge part of myself, reasoning that I would not think or tinker with my manuscript until all four beta readers had returned their feedback, my brain was open and ready for the next thing.

The saying, ‘when one door closes another door opens’ had never held any meaning for me before. In my life, I’ve been the director of the doors. Deliberately opening them and walking through. I always knew what was on the other side. Yet, there I was, fearing that I would be told my work is rubbish, fearing that I would have a void where my ongoing draft had previously been, and most of all, fearing that I wouldn’t have another book in me.

Sending your work into the world, can be like stepping off a cliff. You’re free falling, almost suspended in the air knowing that soon enough, you’re going to hit the water. It’s going to hurt like hell, but you’re too far gone now to change it.

Strangely, the worry about what my beta readers think has subsided. Don’t get me wrong, I still care deeply and want my book to be a success. I want to publish that story, but I’ve also realised that it’s not all that I have to offer. If it doesn’t get picked up, it’s okay, because now I have something new to focus on, and the experience and tenacity to see it through to the end.

The thing with writing a book is that you’ll step over multiple cliffs, climb back up and do it all again. When all my beta feedback comes in, I’ll revise and rewrite and then move onto the next step; either sending to an editor, a publisher or an agent willing to take on my debut novel.

And if my book does get picked up, then the journey really begins!

8 common areas to focus on when editing my WIP + a Printable

I’ve just completed the full read-through of my 80,000+ word draft. I decided NOT to edit as I read, but rather took hand written, chapter by chapter notes. A number of themes arose as I read back through each of my chapter notes. I thought it best to summarise these in bullet points so that I could print them out and keep them somewhere prominent when I do my editing.

At the moment, that somewhere prominent is on the ‘stickies’ app on my Mac – this way my notes can always travel with me. But I also like to have a print out to pin to my desk for easy reference.

Instead of focusing on the details unique to my WIP, I thought it would be more useful to others to make these generic, and to put them in a fun printable for anyone else who might struggle with these same areas!

These are the things I most often skim over, or perhaps don’t pay enough attention to when I’m head down and writing fast:

  1. SHOW don’t tell!
  2. Similes need to be appropriate to the text.
  3. Needs more inner monologue / emotions.
  4. Read dialogue aloud – does it sound authentic?
  5. The actions don’t suit the characters. They’re too generic or they all feel like the same person.
  6. The word choices aren’t appropriate to time / genre / character.
  7. Misnomers in the timelines and small details are inaccurate or inconsistent.
  8. Too many repetitive words.

Do any of these sounds familiar to you? If so, feel free to print out this poster and hang it somewhere easily visible (preferably your writing desk and not the back of the toilet door.)

Would it be useful if I showed you an excerpt of my WIP where these problems exist for me? Please let me know in the comments below.

printable tips for reviewing your manuscript

Click here to download the printable.

 

The deadline is fast approaching…

Shortly after walking away from five days in the beautiful botanic gardens of Adelaide, with sixteen other writers, led by the fearless and charismatic Fiona McIntosh, I set myself a deadline to finish the second* first draft of my manuscript. October 31 was my D-Day.

That deadline is fast approaching. And, I’m not going to meet it.

It was an ambitious deadline, considering I have a toddler, a part (might as well be full) time job and freelance work on the side. I’ve made my peace with it. Working to a deadline is a hugely motivating way to achieve your goals. But it’s important not to get too caught up on the times when those deadlines fall through the cracks.

I had set myself a word count across four days a week. Some weeks I hit or even surpassed it, other weeks I didn’t come close. My son and I both got hit with Influenza A a few weeks ago, there was no writing to be had during that time!

Though the deadline won’t be met, I feel like I’ve still achieved so much in the past six months. Whilst I may not write every day, when I do carve out the time, I feel completely connected to my story. I’ve made huge changes and I’m proud of the work that I’ve achieved. I no longer dread opening my laptop to work on my WIP, because the story is clear to me now, and though it’s far from perfect, I am more in love with my characters than ever before.

I’ve also been able to acknowledge my limitations and put some strategies in place to work with them. After trying to fit writing into my son’s nap times and getting frustrated when he would wake up “too early”, I decided to ditch the nap time writing and either postpone it until after bed time when my husband is home and can deal with unexpected wake ups, or focus my writing energy on my train commute twice a week.

I also –  somewhat indulgently – put my son in childcare for a few hours on one of my days off so that I can buckle down and get more words on the page. I struggled with this idea at first, as if I was somehow putting my writing in front of parenting, but thankfully I have a wonderful support network of parents who reaffirmed my belief that we can’t pour from an empty cup. Resenting my son for my lack of writing time was emptying my cup quicker than I could refill it.

So where am I at with just a few days to go until deadline? As of this morning, I had written over 73,000 words. I am at the pointy end of the plot and the finish line is in sight. I have a clear idea of my ending, it just needs to be written! The anticipation of reaching the end is motivation enough to see me through the last 10K or so. I know there’s still plenty more work ahead of me, but the thought of sitting down and reading this new story from start to finish gives me such a thrill.

I am loving this journey so much more than I thought I would the second time around. I just hope that one day you all get to share in my characters’ challenges and triumphs, too.

*After feedback and learning so much at masterclass, I decided to start my WIP again, from scratch. I’d already written an 85K first draft, but so much of it needed to change that it felt more efficient to cut my losses and start again.

A year in review

My baby turned one this week. In some ways, I can hardly believe I am the mother of a one-year-old, and in other ways it feels like this milestone took an age to arrive.

I have no doubt that parenting is one of the hardest and most challenging experiences of ones life, exasperated for me by the fact that I was unwilling to let go of my writing during those tough early months.

I didn’t write every day. Not even every week. I wrote some poems when I felt overwhelmed. I wrote in my journal a heck of a lot. But I didn’t really open my manuscript for fear that I would get immersed in it and my baby would wake up screaming. Which he did. A lot.

I feel like he didn’t sleep for the first 6 months. Certainly not in blocks of any longer than 2 hours overnight, 20 minutes during the day. He only started to figure out the whole sleep thing at 10 months. But it’s only been since 11 months that he’s consistently been sleeping through the night, and sleeping in wonderful long stints of an hour or more during the day. You will never appreciate a sleeping baby more than when you experience a baby who doesn’t quite “get” sleep.

Aside form keeping my son alive, I actually managed to progress my manuscript quite a lot in the past year. Something I didn’t think would be possible when I was in the depths of sleep deprivation.

After receiving such generous and heart warming support on my recent post over on Louise Allan’s Writers in the Attic, I began to reflect on exactly what I have achieved in this past year. Not just in my journey as a parent, but in my journey as a writer.

Though I still have a long way to go, I think it’s important to acknowledge how far I’ve come. And in an effort to do that for myself, I’m sharing my achievements with you all, here.

When my baby was 8 months old, in my sleep deprived state, I took myself off to Fiona McIntosh’s Commercial Fiction Masterclass. This was five intensive days in a room of 15 other fabulous writers, learning to hone our craft, navigate the publishing industry and basically get down to business. I credit Fiona and this masterclass to kicking my butt into gear and really committing myself to this manuscript.

I worked a reworked a synopsis and submitted it and my first three chapters to the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. If you’d asked me 6 months ago how confident I was of my work, I would have told you it would never see the light of day. So to submit to such a popular and prestigious award (even with reservations), goes to show how much my confidence in myself has grown.

On advice from Fiona, I changed the names of my character’s and the working title of my WIP – which resulted in a snowball effect of changes to my entire manuscript. At first, this was incredibly daunting, but in actual fact, it’s returned some of the joy and pleasure back into my rewrites. Everything just seems to fit better.

I sorted out my home office. It may seem small, but for me it’s a really big improvement. In order to feel motivated to write, I need a good space. Something with natural lighting and a decent chair. Though I can (and often do) write anywhere, having a dedicated space makes me feel all that more professional.

I’ve made headway on social media, particularly on Twitter where I get a real sense of what a writing community is all about. I fell out of love with facebook but have since decided to modify my personal page as my writing page. I was going to set up an ‘author’ page, but I bulk at the thought of having another space to manage. So instead, I’m taking Valerie Khoo’s advice and using my personal page as my Facebook writing platform.

I started doing some freelance writing and editing. I don’t want to spread myself too thin, so I’m selective of my clients and the time I can put towards freelancing, but I’m enjoying the diversity of work and the options it may afford me in the future.

I started an interview series with and for my fellow emerging writers: The Writer’s Room.

And I created this blog!

 

Thank you to each and every one of you who have followed along with me on this journey, sent me encouraging words through social media or email, commented on my posts and supported me when I’ve complained or exclaimed about anything and everything going on in my life. Your support and encouragement means the world to me. X

Sometimes the words just flow…

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.

Manuscript Progress Update

Tomorrow, I’ll be commencing a five-day intensive fiction writing masterclass, facilitated by Fiona McIntosh. I’m looking forward to bunkering down with approximately 18 other writers to learn from one of the masters of Australian commercial fiction. Say what you will about her writing, Fiona McIntosh knows how to sell books. Not only that, she also capitalises on her travel agency past and has run tours to the locations of her books; France for The Lavender Keeper, Belgium for The Cholocate Tin. With the release of The Perfumer’s Secret she also hand blended and released a special perfume that featured in the book. She is more than an author, she is an entrepreneur.

I am giddy with excitement about what lies ahead for the next five days (though overwhelmed at the prospect of leaving my 8 month old for the first time). I hope to blog about each day very quickly after the masterclass while it’s still fresh in my mind. So if it interests you, be sure to check back in the coming weeks.

Right now, I am in the midst of a major rewrite of my completed manuscript. Currently it sits at just over 84,000 words. Of that I’ve edited 20,000.

As part of the masterclass, Fiona reviews both the synopsis and the first 10 pages of your manuscript. We then have a one-on-one discussion where I’m hoping she will tell me that I’m wonderfully on track and that the book is sure to be a best-seller.

Ha!

Though I do hope to get some positive feedback, I’m sure it’s more likely to be quite constructive. I just hope it doesn’t result in me needing to rethink the entire manuscript again, because I don’t think I have the stamina for that. I have too many other ideas floating around. And, after 3 years on this, I’m getting impatient to put it aside and start something new.