Tag Archives: Writing

Notes on writing

What would I know?

Okay, so I thought I had the answers about how to get stuff written. I was wrong. This new, dark novel is killing me. It’s like wading through a cold tar pit in the dark with a blindfold on. I have no idea where I’m going, my progress is slow and it is terribly uncomfortable. I’ve decided that I can’t spend this much time is such a bleak space. It is making me depressed, and this isn’t what I want from writing.

I get the feeling I would need to be in a super-happy place in my life to have the resilience required to write this novel, and something tells me that if I was fortunate enough to find myself in that place I wouldn’t want to write the novel. I really can see that there is a reason why I have only written dark short stories before. If you can’t close the door on the story with a ‘the end’ before you walk away from the computer, it follows you around.

So for the first time in two years I’m going to have to concede defeat; I’m quitting the novel. I have decided it is best for my mental health, and it is much better to make this decision two weeks into the project rather than two months (or more). It also leaves me quarter of the year to finish something else. And after the two weeks I’ve just had, I think it is going to be something fun.

It will be interesting to see how my outlook on the rest of my life changes (if at all) when I start spending my imaginary life in a better place. I think there might be a much bigger crossover between my two worlds than I realised. I’m still not sure what is crossing over which way though. I hope changing the fiction will change the fact. I can’t keep eating this much chocolate.

Project promiscuity

Okay, I know I’m inviting a bunch of really bad spam from that title, but it was the most accurate way I could think of to describe my old approach to writing. I’ve been writing all of my adult life, and until the last few years I was a big believer in writing what I felt like writing. Our moods change a lot, and when you are happy you don’t really want to get bogged down in a depressing or dark piece of fiction. So I always used to have a number of projects on the go at once.

I ended up with a lot of novels that only got to chapter 5. I also had a lot of partially written short stories. What I had very few of was finished pieces. I also did almost no editing because the lure of new words always won.

About three years ago I decided I needed to finish stuff, so I tried to focus on just one project at a time. It didn’t work, as soon as I got to a difficult bit in my story I’d set it aside and start thinking about another story. Thinking turned into writing, and next thing I knew I had another novel that only made it to chapter 5.

Not many people know this, but a few years ago I spent a week believing I had a brain tumor. My doctor prepped me for it with too much conviction, and due to a whole manner of mishaps it took a week between the doctor’s diagnosis, my CT scan and getting the results that the doctor was wrong. I had a bunch of really bad symptoms that gave incredible verisimilitude to my incorrect diagnosis, so needless to say I did a LOT of thinking about the future, and more specifically, how short that future might be.

Above everything else I wanted to finish my novel. Despite my symptoms and stress, every night after work I came home and wrote like a machine. I’d hit a tough bit and I would slog through it to get to the next part where I felt more comfortable about what was happening. I didn’t let any other projects distract me.

By the time I discovered my brain was clear (and disappointingly showed no signs of secret microchips implanted by alien abductors), I had realised that I could force myself to focus. That novel was EveryWere, my pantser novel, and I finished writing it in just over 3 months.

That was a game changer for me. Since then I have picked just the one project at a time and regardless of mood, inspiration, or haunting writing daemons, I work on only that project. I have finished another novel, two novellas and five short stories since then. Probably more completed words than in my entire writing career before that time.

A lot of people enjoy project promiscuity, and they can make it work for them. But if you are like I was, and you aren’t finishing anything, then don’t wait for a terminal diagnosis to get yourself focussed. Try being faithful to just one project. You might go through some tough times together, but you may also find yourself in a deeper, more meaningful relationship with your writing than you have ever had before.

Happy writing.

The lows of writing

Every story, no matter how good or bad, has a lot of work in it. Even if you are a total slacker and you send out your first draft, not even bothering to re-read it, you’ve still put a reasonable effort in to get it finished. For me, I edit and re-edit my stories seemingly endlessly. I cannot read them without wanting to change something. A flash fiction story of 500 words can easily take six hours to get to the standard where I think it is ready to send out. That’s a big investment.

After so much work it is hard to forget about it once it is out in the big wide world. You are so eager to see if it is going to get a chance to be read by the public. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that when I have a story out, every time I check my emails the first thing I do is skim the subject headers to see if there is a response. 99% of the time there is nothing. It is not unusual to be waiting over six months to hear back from a publisher, even for a short story, and that’s if they respond at all.

This part of the process is the one that most undermines my desire to get published. I don’t mind rejection, even form letter rejections (a generic response sent to all rejected stories), but hearing nothing, that’s disheartening. You can’t help but speculate that the story got lost, or wonder if anyone read it at all. What’s even worse is when it was ahead of the pack months ago when you sent it, but now everyone is subbing stories on that topic. That’s the main reason why I try not to write topical stories anymore.

A particular low for me was when an editor announced on social media that they hadn’t received any stories of a certain category that were up to standard for their anthology, so they wanted more of that category. My story fell squarely in that category and I had subbed it a month earlier. So I knew it was rejected, but the editor didn’t send me a formal rejection for another two weeks.

I know editors get inundated with subs, and they often have day jobs, not to mention their own stories that they are trying to write. But I wish they wouldn’t give indicative response times on their sites if they don’t meet those. I also really hope the public rejection before personal rejection doesn’t become the norm.

The whole thing has inspired me to write a story specifically for self-publication. This way I control the timelines and if nothing happens for a while, it’s because I’ve dropped the ball. I’m pretty excited about it too. It’s wonderful knowing that I will be able to count on it being out in the world by a certain date, instead of waiting, potentially for years, for others to reject or accept it.

Top 10 writer things to do – learn to touch type

I have a lot of friends who write by hand and I know, for some people, that is how they connect with their ‘muse’. There is something enticing about going out to buy a new notebook and knowing that you will fill it with your next story. If that is your thing and you need or enjoy it, that’s fine.

For many others of us, handwriting means cramp in our hand after two pages, never being able to find the right angle to write comfortably, and finding our hand cannot keep up with our brain. If that’s not bad enough we can go back to edit what we clearly remember as being spectacular writing, and we can’t make sense of our messy scribble.

I clearly fall into this latter camp.

I learned to touch type when I was 21. I remember the experience distinctly because my flatmates were paying to do a course that I was too tight to join them in. So from the moment they walked out the door to when they came home, I jumped on the computer and played a touch-typing game. Those few weeks took me from having no idea to a typing speed of about 70 wpm (or 90 if I don’t mind making a few typos).

I can type at a far greater speed than I can manually write. When typing, I never find myself having to slow down my thoughts to get it all down. Even better, I don’t need to look at the keys, or even the screen, so I can blur my eyes and actually watch everything happening in my imagination. And when it comes to editing, nothing compares to having a file you can cut and paste, compared to several notebooks of illegible writing (as is the case if I try handwriting).

In the previous two years I have written two novels within a three-month period. I would never have been able to do that if I couldn’t touch type. Also it is one of the most transferrable skills I’ve got. I’ve been able to use typing through all my many and varied careers. I use it every day and often think how grateful I am to my two more cashed-up flatmates for doing the course all those years ago.

I don’t know why everyone doesn’t learn to touch type, but especially authors. Even if you write by hand, eventually you have to transfer it to a digital format. Yes, you may be able to get quite a good speed up with your three-finger method, but if you are that quick with three fingers, I can almost guarantee you will be even faster if you use all your fingers (and don’t need to watch where they go).

Most basic communication

Anyone who follows my Twitter account will know that I’m nearly a crazy cat lady. I spend a lot of time talking to my cat. In the past 12 months she has started talking back to me a lot (in meows, not words – this isn’t one of my stories). We have had many very satisfying, nonsensical conversations.

This has really got me thinking about the non-words side of communication. We all know how important body language and facial expressions are when it comes to talking to people, but when it comes to animals that all stops having meaning.

My cat is a rescue cat, and for some reason I can’t explain, it seems morally wrong to me to change her name. The problem is I don’t really like her name. As a result I can call her one of up to about twenty different names; Puss, Pussums, Baby-Doll, Snookums, Honey-Cakes, Baby-Cakes, Babe, Bubalicious etc. (apologies to any ex’s who recognise their own Monika’s in there, I didn’t steal them from you, they were bestowed upon my high-school cat long before they made it to partner level). The funny thing is, she always seems to respond as if I am saying her name.

I can only conclude that it all comes down to my tone when I speak. Interestingly, tone of voice is one of the few things I don’t comment on when writing dialogue. It can be hard to write tone into text without sounding like author intrusion, but when done well it can lend your story more depth and emotion. I’m going to make a more concerted effort to add it in future.

Just an aside; I often trip over the cat because she likes to smooch around my feet. Shocked, I can’t help by yelp ‘Sorry!’ each time I do it. Only recently have I realised that because of the loud and urgent nature of my apology there is every chance the tone sounds more like ‘Got ya!’ to my poor cat. Now I give her and apologetic pat instead.

My cat looking wistfully at the birds outside.
My cat looking wistfully at the birds outside.

Wham, bam, thank you spam

“Life, no end to this there will be bonded, finally, it will reach the heights of success. Love you could also gift your soul mate diamond…”

Yes, it is very nearly a coherent sentence, but doesn’t quite get there. This is a quote from one of my recent spammers. I get these sorts of things all the time and would dearly like to lift them and put them into a story. I read these little snippets and smile at the idea of a computer getting a chance to be creative. Okay, it doesn’t make sense, but sometimes it almost does.

Of course computers becoming sentient has been done to death, and done really well (Terminator is one of my favourite films of all time). It’s up there with meet the devil or win the lottery for ‘no more please’ stories. But that is like a red flag to a bull for me. I want to find a different angle and I’m sure if I keep reading my spam, I will see it there one day.

I have a terrible habit of setting my brain a subconscious task (yes, I know I’ve told you to work on the novel, but hey while we’re sleeping you have all that spare time on your lobes) and it almost always delivers. There is a magical Eureka! moment when the story, fully-formed, pops into my head.

So let’s see how long this one takes. The clock starts ticking today. Maybe the clock knows it’s ticking? Maybe there is no clock? Honestly, who would want to live in my head!?!

Top 10 writer things to do – go to writer talks

If you want to feel like a writer, you can’t go past attending writer talks. I have an amazing local library (Mt Barker) which organises fantastic meet-the-writer sessions for many well known local and international authors. But if you are not so lucky to have a library like that nearby, many book shops and universities will sponsor them as well. So let Google be your friend on that one.

When listening to a writer talk about their process of writing, you will be amazed at how often you find yourself nodding and thinking ‘yes, I find that too.’ At the Adelaide Writer’s Festival this year I listened with amused familiarity to a few authors discussing the merits of pantsing vs planning vs plantsing. I loved that I knew exactly what they meant, while many around me had clearly never heard the terms before. I totes felt like a writer that day.

These talks will also often cover the author’s journey to publication. I think it is invaluable hearing these stories, because the ones you read about in popular news are nearly always the overnight sensations who had just started writing six months earlier. For many authors there is a ten+ year slog, poor first book sales and countless low points where they nearly gave up (before they realised that there is no such thing as giving up, our writer daemons won’t let us do that – EVER).

These talks also give you an opportunity to meet writers who have succeeded. I find most of them are really keen for a chat at the inevitable book-signing, and it gives you a chance to see how normal and very much like you they are.

And let’s not forget the final benefit; there are a lot of unpublished writers also going to these talks. So this puts you in a situation where you can mix with many other writers and potentially expand (or start) your writers group.

Facial Recognition

I’ve got terrible facial recognition. I might know if I have seen a face before, but when seen out of context I just assume they are from the bus or a former workplace. I actually did a facial recognition test and got the exact average score, so all I can assume is lots of other people are terrible with faces too.

Last weekend I discovered that my next door neighbour works in my office. There are only about 50 people in my office, and I’ve been there for over six months. I think that gives you some idea of how bad my facial recognition is. (No wonder he never waved at me when I spotted him from my driveway – I must always be blanking him at work).

This got me thinking about my writing. I rarely, if ever, describe what my characters look like. I have an idea, but unless it is necessary to the story, I’ll let you fill in their height, weight, hair and eye colour. Obviously these things are just not that important to me. I would love to know if writers who do describe their characters in lots of detail (to the point where we even know what clothes they are wearing) what are they like with facial recognition?

Oddly, I see ‘faces’ where there are none. Below are two recent examples of faces I managed to capture, but I see them in trees, stones on the footpath, and in clouds. The one thing all these faces have in common is that they are non-human. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that in my writing I love to describe my monsters.

StudyJoeySmall

Lists

I love task lists. Their big brothers are Excel spreadsheets, which I also adore, but task lists hold a special kind of magic for me. They are a promise of achievements yet to come. Just writing the list gives you a taste of what it is like to complete them.

I have an ongoing list of stories I want to complete. Each title has a box next to it for me to tick (in red so it stands out) when it is completed, and a space for the date. This list is constantly growing, but also looks very nicely actioned. That’s probably my favourite list.

I also have a weekly list of 20 tasks; 10 personal items, 10 writing items. Anything not completed by the end of the week gets rolled over to the following week. I try to always achieve a pass mark, but sometimes I only scrape a ‘C-‘. I’ve been doing these task lists for over 10 years.

This week I ramped it up a notch. After writing my 20 tasks I divvied them up into daily tasks and allocated them to each day of the week. This was in an effort to stop me from getting to Sunday and finding I have 15 things to complete (as is often the case).

I still have one day of the week to go, but it has worked brilliantly! Even on days when I thought I had my evenings free, but then they turned out not to be so, I still completed my tasks. I skipped out on most of my usual TV viewing for the week, and got to bed a little later than usual on two nights, but the tasks got done.

I won’t lie, it was a lot of work and a bit of stress, but as I ticked off those tasks at the end of each day, I had an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. Not only that, but for the first time in months I’m going to be getting at least an A level pass even if I do nothing for the rest of Sunday –and that feels fantastic!!!

For those not used to task lists, a good way to set them up is to think about your major goals (finish writing your novel, go back to Uni, whatever) and then break those down into smaller and smaller steps toward the big goal (write novel plan, find academic transcript etc.). Those are the steps you put on your weekly task list. If you find you are not getting around to ticking them off, break them into even smaller steps. It is amazing how much you can achieve. Try it!

A title is the ultimate flash fiction

I sometimes have a problem coming up with titles. I pretty much know that if the title hasn’t come with the idea (which sometime does happen), then I’m going to struggle with it. Titles are important for conveying a little bit of what the story is about, so you need to get them right.

I have heard a few writers say that if they can’t come up with a title, then it means the story is not working. I think that is just one of those quirky superstitions that writers like to embrace. I’m not bagging them, I’ve got a million crazy superstitions around my own writing, but ‘trouble with titles as an indicator of value of story’ is not one of them.

Thanks to Adelaide writers’ week, I now know that other authors also struggle with the title. One mentioned that she came up with about 50 titles and all were rejected by the publisher. I’m impressed she managed that many, I normally give up at about 10, 15 tops, and then I pick the best of the bad bunch.

My approach to the title is similar to how I attack flash fiction or Tweeting. First I write down everything I want to say, and then I work on making it shorter… And shorter… And shorter. If I can get it down to one word, fantastic, but I think I’m doing well once it under three words. It may have lost some of the meaning by then, but I hope it at least gives a hint of what the story is about.

I think a really good title can pick up a few readers you might not otherwise have nabbed, but I think the title would have to be pretty woeful to divert someone who might otherwise have checked it out. But given my last three publications were entitled ‘Glide’, ‘Glow’ and ‘Life’ you might do better to get advice elsewhere when it comes to titles.