All posts by Natalie

Tapping the flow

Last weekend I attended a writing seminar that turned out to be more of a workshop. I’ve been thinking about it over the last week, trying to work out why the workshop component frustrated me so much. I think I’ve got the answer, and I realise how silly it is.

The activities required that we come up with little story ideas to illustrate the points we had just been learning about. The problem is, when I ask my brain to get creative, it really doesn’t hold back. So, for three exercises it came up with three, full story ideas.

These ideas (and specifically the characters) have been coming back to haunt me all week. It’s as if they are wondering what they did wrong to make me ignore them? Why am I not finishing their story?!?

For me, I don’t feel like story ideas are drawn from a well of creativity, as I’ve heard others describe it, but rather they are tapped from below. Once that trickle starts, my experience is that it won’t stop until the story reservoir is dry.

I punched three holes in the story current above me last weekend, and now I can’t stop the drip, no matter how much I try to plug them. I suspect the only way I’ll be free is to finish writing them.

Screenwriting

This week I attended a screenwriting course. I’ve been trying to write a screenplay for a very long time and have never got more than about 20 pages in. I start to wander off into excessive descriptions about the surroundings, or worse, I drop into the thoughts of the main character. Neither or which are acceptable for screenwriting.

I was hoping this course would give me some tips about how to manage these sorts of things, and show examples of other scripts and how they deal with these situations. It didn’t. It’s my own fault for not reading the course description properly, but the course was more about the overarching structure of screenplay stories.

As a short and long-form story writer, I found the rules thing quite strange. I know scriptwriters are hung up on ‘rules’ of story structure far more than novelists. Everything must fit into 3 acts, the story should fit a beat sheet or plot plan, etc. I was prepared for that. But we looked at stuff like the types of power a character has and the exchange of that power. We looked at all sorts of things that I would just heap into the ‘stuff that happens’ pile.

If I tried to keep all these ‘rules’ in my head when writing a script, I would never get a word written. I find it hard to believe that scriptwriters keep all this stuff front of mind when they write. I think if the truth be told, they just stick to the same ‘rule’ as novelists; make sure you include a goal and motivation for your protagonist, and squeeze in some kind of conflict and hey presto, you have a story.

After today I think I’m almost ready to conclude that I am not a screenwriter. It’s a bit sad really.

Deadlines

I had a deadline this week. It was a due date for a submission reading period, and I really wanted to get in. I made it; sending off my story with several days to spare (just in case something went wrong with the submission process). The moment I sent off the story, all motivation to keep writing ground to a halt.

Funnily enough, I have still managed to push myself to edit my novella. I think that’s because I’ve set myself a deadline each Sunday to put up my progress on Twitter. As much as it’s a self-created deadline, it feels like there might be someone out there policing my dedication because I’ve put it in the public domain. I’m sure that if I didn’t have that deadline, I’d have just hung out in the garden all weekend looking forward to spring.

The answer seems obvious to me; I need to find another deadline. My edit of the novella appears to allow me to have some flings with short stories (quite unlike my experience with novel writing), so perhaps I should keep going with this? Because despite my hectic social and work life recently, I’ve actually managed to write 3 short stories in the last six weeks.

I do love a deadline.

First Draft Life

Occasionally you discover a previously unknown truth that shocks you. It might be as small as realising you have been saying a word incorrectly your whole life, or it could be as major as discovering your parents have been hiding a secret brother in the cellar all these years. Neither of those happened to me this week (they don’t even have a cellar), but I did discover that a belief I’d taken for granted was wrong.

If I was a character in one of my stories I would have wallowed in this particular truth for a while (act 1), come to grips with it (act 2), and then made a radical change to my life to go on with the new knowledge (act 3). Instead I’m trying to pretend I did not make this discovery, and I keep going as if everything is still exactly the same.

Of course, my response is ridiculous, and will no doubt lead to some weird dreams, a few more neuroses and, eventually, several more horror stories. It would also be a very frustrating and uninteresting story if I was reading it.

I know I’ve said it before, but I wish I sometimes had the courage of my characters and lived my life more like a story rather than a prelude to retirement. I guess the issue with real life is that you can’t just go back and edit things if you realise your character is heading in the wrong direction. We only get a first draft at life.

 

The meaning in things

This week my great Aunt died. While I hadn’t spent a lot of time with her in recent years, she was a big part of my childhood family-gathering memories. She is also the last of that generation to go, which opens up a whole plethora of feelings which I won’t be exploring here.

Next week my parents and I will likely go down and start clearing out her house, disposing of possessions that would have meant so much to my great Aunt, but to us are just things. It’s led to the inevitable review of my own life and all the collections in my house. How would my stuff look through the eyes of someone else?

I look at the biology text book that I’ve lugged from Adelaide, to Brisbane, to Melbourne and back to Adelaide as I’ve moved around the country. It’s well out of date, and I haven’t opened it in years, but every time I look at it, I have fond memories of all the hours I spent pouring over it for Uni when I still believed that I could work as a zoologist. No-one else will see that book that way.

There is the stuffed toy that was my favourite as a child, the framed drawing done for me by a friend at a time when I needed it, the glasses I bought myself as a gift to when I had my first paid publication, and of course the beautiful Archaeopteryx that I’d wanted for as long as I could remember and a special boyfriend managed to track down for me as a wonderful surprise.

All these things are just things, but they are the things that make up my past and colour my future. I just hope that I can give my Aunt’s things the respect and attention that they deserve.

 

Change in Genre?

There is a short story competition coming up that I want to enter. I work best with deadlines, so competitions are great for that. But here’s the thing, it’s not my usual genre. Even though I read really widely, I tend to write 80% science fiction or horror, and the remaining 20% would be classed as fantasy. Which equals 100% speculative fiction.

Spec fic is not terribly in demand, and while it could easily be my style to blame, publishers don’t seem very interested in my speculative novels. So I’ve decided it is time to try something new. Of course the first story idea I got was also set in the future, keeping me in my comfort zone, but it also met the criteria for the competition. The next idea I got had no speculative elements in it at all, and this is the one I’m going to focus on.

Neither story is actually written yet. And they may both turn out to be duds. But it is nice to venture somewhere else for a while. Who knows, maybe it will become my new thing?

In my heart I’ll still be a spec fic writer, and I’ll always be writing spec on the side.

Special Sundays

A few weeks ago I decided to give up on always trying to ‘grab’ moments of writing whenever I could. Mainly because it just wasn’t happening, which left me feeling  a bit of a failure. Instead, I nominated Sunday as my writing day, which meant I blocked out at least a half-day (but usually the whole day) in which I could write.

This lifted a huge weight off because I stopped feeling guilty about not writing on the few days after work when I didn’t have something else on. It also took off the pressure of trying to get words done between housework/friends/family on Saturday.

The other great thing it did was give me back some anticipation. I’ve found myself thinking about what I’m going to do on Sunday throughout the week, and even better, looking forward to it.

Yes, it’s true that I’m not getting out anywhere near as many words as when I wrote every day, but I am keeping the house clean, recording loads of quality family time in the memory banks and keeping in touch with friends. These things are all important too, and giving them some priority as well doesn’t make me any less of a writer.

 

Past half way

I’m sure I’m not the only one who still thinks of the year as being fairly new. Now we are about to hit August and I’ve finally realised the end of the year is quickly closing in. I have also realised that I don’t have any short story submissions out for review, so my hopes of another publication this year are fading fast.

It’s pretty unlikely I’d get something published before the end of December anyway, given that the turn-around from submission to publication is usually about a year these days, but waiting until the end of July is really leaving it a bit too late. I need to pull my finger out.

Every week I look at my Duotrope email about the upcoming anthology deadlines, and every week I find at least two that grab my interest, but that’s as far as it goes. This week I need to change that, this week I want to pick something, write a story and send it out.

Sure, I may have left it too late for 2019, but it would be great to start 2020 with a publication. It really is time to get back into the swing of things, and I have so many short stories pestering me to be written.

 

 

Back-up Plan

I’ve seen a few TV shows about chasing dreams, but like any good story, we’re always following the person who makes it. The thing that has always struck me with this sort of movie/documentary/reality TV show is that there is always something said along the lines of ‘do what you love and you will succeed’.

The past few years has taught me that this is not always true. Implicit in the statement (or those like it) is that if you don’t succeed it’s because you haven’t been trying hard enough. And the fact is you can always try harder. What is never addressed is how many people do succeed despite having done very little. The luck factor is ignored.

Then I watched a different documentary, one that followed the lives of a group of individuals just to see where they ended up. It started with no real idea of where (or when) it would finish. One of the people it followed wanted to be a writer, and despite years of dedication, he has still not made it. Now I’m not saying he will never make it, but his effort has made my piddly 15 years seem very short.

I know it is a very negative thing to say; to suggest that despite the belief and effort it is still possible to fail, but I think we do need to sing the praises of the back-up plan. I once heard a successful singer (who found success at the ripe old age of 16) say that you should never have a back-up plan. It puts the message out to the universe that you don’t want to succeed.

What total rubbish. I have friends who have lived by this, but because they have to make money while waiting to be discovered they have taken jobs in service stations, bottle shops and cafes. No slight to them, but let’s face it, if you are in a café you can’t do any more writing than when you are in an office.

Also, too many people have succeeded who also have successful careers in other things. I think what is more likely is that because you get worn out or tied from the day job, you might be less likely to make the most of the opportunities to chase your dream. It gets to be easier to come home and watch TV with a glass of wine than to come home and enter that competition.

So yes, have a back-up plan, but just remember to keep your eye on the real prize. And if you choose the right back-up plan it may even give you the financial backing to take the time off and really chase that dream when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes along. At least that’s the thought that’s keeping me going now.

Trilogy Trap

Over the past month I’ve been reading the 9th book in a trilogy of trilogies. The last three in the series were all over 800 pages long. This was quite a commitment. Perhaps that was why I abandoned my 100-page rule, where if I’m not enjoying a book by page 100, I put it down.

I loved the first series, liked the second series, and then loved the first book of the final series. But then I hit what can only be described as filler books. In all honesty there was only a book’s worth of stuff to happen, and a 400-page book at that. But this author was wed to the trilogy mentality, and there were two more books to go to meet that, so two more were written. As a result there were several verrrrrryyyyy long ship voyages, long hikes, lots of reflection, and lots of meaningless arguments that didn’t contribute much at all.

It made me quite sad that I found myself getting sick of characters I had loved for over 10 years (yes, that’s how long it took me to read the series). The end left me a bit flat because it was tied up a bit too neatly, and showed me too much of the happily-ever-after without any reflection on the sacrifices the main character had made to get the happily-ever-after. I was still hurting over those sacrifices, but the character was so busy getting on with being happy that he didn’t seem to lament them.

It has taught me such a valuable lesson; never fall into the trilogy trap. Yes, trilogies are nice, but if the books can’t stand alone – at least in so much as having a beginning, middle and end – then they shouldn’t be written. And if the middle book is just about reflecting on the first book and anticipating the last book, then it has no purpose.

I have written/planned a trilogy, but I believe the books tell three different stories. If I find that this isn’t the case once they are all finished, then I promise I won’t force them onto the world. They can come out as a duology, or even two stand-alone novels set in the same world. There is nothing wrong with that.