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.

IMG_7940

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.

3C2C3431-BAB5-47E6-B5A7-19388D764C13

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.

 

IMG_7942

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.

IMG_7941

Fred the Cat

 

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

The Writer’s Room: Annabelle McInnes

I am just so excited to introduce you all to my second guest for the new interview series, the Writer’s Room: Annabelle McInnes. I met Annabelle when we both attended Fiona McIntosh’s Commercial Fiction Mastercalss earlier this year, and I was instantly drawn to her. Annabelle is already an accomplished writer, having secured a three book (series) deal with Escape Publishing, the first of which is due out later this year.

From the age of sixteen, Annabelle lived in a youth refuge while she remained committed to her education. She spent two years within a section of humanity that society overlooks.

Her experiences are the foundations that drive her stories and her characters. They fight for their freedoms, have courage in the face of adversity and will ultimately, always aspire for greatness.

Annabelle is privileged to spend her time writing with a backdrop of Canberra’s iconic landmarks and admiring its distinct and captivating change of seasons. Outside of her love for reading, she spends every free moment with her husband, son and her poodle named Serendipity. She drinks her Whisky neat and is known to scour the local markets in an attempt to find the best blue cheese available.

 

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

I am the mother of a two-year-old son. A little boy who is full of all the wonderful elements that makes up any toddler. I also work a four-day work week and support my husband with his business. The only way I can fit in time to write is to be a master at time management. The baby goes down for a nap – write. Lunch break – write. During those precious moments, I don’t distract myself with housework, social media or telephone calls. My headphones are in and I have a playlist of 90s rock ballads that I put on repeat. I am also the queen of understanding my own body and what it needs to write. Mornings are best for me with a cup of tea, coffee or even an energy drink depending how much uninterrupted sleep I’ve had. I work in stages and do a minimum of four distinct drafts. I’m currently working on the first draft of my third novel, so I’m getting into the swing of my own style now.

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

I write because I love it. I write because it is an external expression of who I am. What I think, dream and feel. I’ve always written as a hobby, but I started writing True Refuge when my baby was only six months old with no intention of ever publishing it, or even anyone else reading it. I needed an escape, and so I wrote. That original draft has had innumerable rewrites as I have learnt the complex difference between writing a story and writing a novel to be published. Through that process I discovered that writing is intrinsic to my happiness. I want to create a career as a successful writer. It’s hard work, of that there is no doubt. But it is the type of work that feeds my soul, and so I am able to push through the barriers.

Who or what are some of your biggest influencers?

From sixteen, I lived in a youth refuge in Canberra. During that time, I experienced the significant disparity between privilege and poverty and lived within a part of society that most overlook. Those experiences still colour my life and heavily influence my writing. I have always loved high fantasy novels. I grew up reading (and re-reading) all of J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, the Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist, and the early books by George R. R. Martin to escape during my childhood. As a teenager I discovered Romance, and my ferocious appetitive for books really began. But it wasn’t until I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy did I come to appreciate dystopian and speculative fiction novels and how my experiences could shape these fictitious worlds. The concept that drives Speculative Fiction – What If – fuels my imagination more than any other genre. Couple that with romance and a chance to build a new world? A brilliant combination that I adore to read and write.

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

Though I have always loved to write, choosing to become a published author was a decision that came in my thirties. Attending conferences and masterclasses has helped me develop my craft. In 2016, I attended the Romance Writers of Australia’s Annual conference. While I was there, I completed a one-day Story Mastery workshop with Michael Haugh. It really solidified how important it is to tell a great story. He outlined the strategic elements that create a detailed narrative, complex characters and a tight plot. Fiona McIntosh’s Masterclass was also a turning point. Her insights into the publishing world, the work required to create a career out of writing and the mechanics of a successful novel, were pivotal. The connections with other writers has also been fundamental. They inspire me, drive me and support me. I wouldn’t be here without the friendships made through those conferences and classes.

Do you have any advice for other emerging writers?

Write. Everyone says it, but it’s true. Write. Write what you love. I’m time poor, so if I don’t love what I’m writing, I’ll procrastinate and it won’t get done. Like training to run a marathon, it’s about time on your feet (or in the chair, as writing may be). You’ll never succeed if all you ever do is talk about it. Write, get feedback, edit, edit, edit, edit. Then send it out. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! Believe in your style, believe in your words, believe in your genre. Don’t listen to others. Like having children, everyone will have an opinion and everyone will tell you a better way to do something. Trust your instincts, and write, write, write!

The first book in your new Refuge romance series is coming out later this year, but I recall at masterclass that you are also toiling with the idea of writing in another genre, what is your reason for this and how are you finding the shift from Romance to something new?

The chance to explore other genres excites me. During Fiona’s Masterclass I thought of writing contemporary fiction, leaving myself open to the opportunity to explore a range of stories and narratives. These new plots play constantly in my mind, but as I’ve been working hard writing the Refuge Trilogy, I haven’t had a chance to fully investigate these options. Yet!

Thank you so much, Annabelle, for your time and insight. If you want to get more of Annabelle, you can connect with her here:

Website: www.annabellemcinnes.com
Facebook: https://web.facebook.com/authorannabellemcinnes/#
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/annabellemcinnes/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/akmcinnes
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/58003716-annabelle-mcinnes\
Escape Publishing: http://www.escapepublishing.com.au/product/9781489251015

On Being a Masterclasser: Conflict

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.

 

On Being a Masterclasser: Character

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

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.

 

 

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.