Keeping going is sometimes super hard

Yesterday, I started my new Kimberley Freeman novel “Ember Island”. I have 30 000 words a month to write for the next four months, and in my planning for how I’m going to accomplish this, I had to assess my weaknesses and the threats to my writing time (Hello, Interwebz). The big threat to this project is that I am travelling a lot through November, including two long-haul trips; there’s Christmas in December; and school holidays with my kids home for 4 weeks in Janaury. It would be all too easy to throw my hands in the air and say “I don’t have time to write!”

So I need strategies, and over the summer, for the benefit of all mankind (at least those who write), I’m going to be trying out a range of strategies to make “keep going” a reality. See, for example, the photo of my notebook here (excuse my knees and toes in the shot; it is customary for me to work in bed or on the couch). There are twenty-five numbers in the table, and combined they add up to 30 000 (my goal for November). On 25 of the 30 days of November, I have to pick a number and write that much. There are small amounts, for days when I am tightly scheduled, and big amounts for when I have the luxury of time.

Watch this space for more helpful tips.Image

No, no… don’t get up.

Shit just got real around here, with me needing to start a new Kimberley Freeman, finish my novella collection, and write an academic paper. It’s a big scary bottleneck of WRITE SOMETHING, BITCH so I’ve had to have a long hard look at my writing habits, which have been a bit slippery of late.

We all understand that to write we have to sit at our keyboards (for example, I’m sitting at mine right now, in bed with the electric blanket on… this is my favourite way to work). But I don’t think sitting at the keyboard is specific enough advice anymore. Do you know why? Because of the siren call of the FUCKING internet, which clearly doesn’t want me to get my work done.

Because in every writing project—creative or otherwise—there comes a moment where you hit a slow spot and you’re not quite sure what to write next. Now at this stage, many of us will pop open an internet browser. Guess what, you just walked away from the work. You just got up and walked away. Worse: you just put your writing out of your head too. At least if you take a little walk around your garden, you can still be mulling it over. Let me make this really clear to you:
• When you google a bit of research, you have walked away from your work and are now in a library. That’s kind of okay, but it’s a library where there are a lot of celebrity gossip mags lying around that have enticing headlines.
• When you open Facebook, you have walked away from your work and are now in a room full of your friends and they are all bored and talking derp and exchanging hilarious animal pictures.
• When you start instant messaging on Skype or Google Talk or whatever, you have walked away from your work to chat with a friend.
• When you slide over to your favourite blogs, you have walked away from work and are reading a magazine instead.
• When you check your email, you have walked away from your work and up to your letterbox, collected your mail and opened it and started composing responses.

You wouldn’t do this in any other job and expect to get things completed. In all these examples, not only have you stopped writing, but you’ve stopped thinking about your writing. You’ve killed your flow. ERMERGERD!

Simply reframing your internet procrastination as wandering away from your work can really help. When your mouse is hovering over that Firefox logo, you must say to yourself sharply, “Don’t get up. Don’t walk away. Be here in the story.” The internet will wait for you. And the animals are never that funny anyway. Except that sneezing baby panda. He’s awesome.

Multi-millionaire

Many books, many editions, all by me!

On August 31, I will launch my 22nd book, Lighthouse Bay, under the name Kimberley Freeman. I have done the maths, and calculated that the release of this book will see me pass two million words of fiction in print. From the age of 4 (if not before), I knew I wanted to be a writer, though I never imagined I’d have two million words in print one day, especially as I’m not yet (I hope) halfway through life. That means there’s every chance that I might make it to five million before I pop my clogs.

Still. Something about the passing of this milestone has given me a new feeling of knowing everything. Okay, technically I can’t know everything. But I feel like I do anyway. Like, if you asked me any question at all about writing fiction, I would answer you immediately, thoroughly, informatively, and be 100% confident I was right. After all, I am the two-million-word girl.

So here is my best advice for fiction writing distilled. (There are swears. I grew up swearing a lot in the outer suburbs and I used to be embarrassed about that, but now I’m rocking my outer-suburbs upbringing because I’m a fucking expert now and nobody can say welfare class girls can’t do it.)

Write, you muthafucka! Write the fucking fiction! Don’t write blogs and marketing plans and twitter yourself in front of everyone in hopes of building a platform. Write the fucking fiction FIRST. The rest is just white noise until you have a good finished product. And it must be good. We live in an instant gratification society. You can post some nonsense while sitting on the toilet on Facebook and seventeen people can “like” it before you’ve wiped your arse. That’s not going to cut it in the world of writing fiction. You need to shape, craft, edit, prune, elaborate, make the writing BEAUTIFUL. Then, and only then, can you hold your head high in a public forum and say, “I am a writer. I write beautifully. You will know my name.”

Extreme love or go home. Don’t write to impress your father/your teacher/the literati/the fickle marketplace. Write something that comes from deep, deep down. Haul it wriggling its slimy tentacles into the light, and pin it on the page with passion and precision and care and EXTREME LOVE. It’s really hard to write a book. Why the fuck would you write one you didn’t love EXTREMELY? It’d be more fun to pull your own eyeballs out on corn skewers. And you know what the world doesn’t need more of: careless art tossed off cynically. Don’t you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool, by making the world a little colder? Or so the Beatles said.

Never compare yourself to other people. Never. It is futile, exhausting, and poisons you to the point where you don’t know what you extreme-love anymore. So somebody in your writers’ group got published ahead of you? SO FUCKING WHAT? Are you dead? Then quit complaining. If you think that somebody else’s success makes you small, then you are telling yourself your stories don’t matter. They do. Write your stories, from your heart; and if you have followed steps one and two, they will be precious and meaningful and belong in the world, even if the only audience they ever meet is a small one.

And all this is true, I know, because I am a fucking expert and I am always right.

June is for writing

My sabbatical is almost over and I’m back at work at the uni in one month. Today, I got all my academic work in order, made notes about how and when to finish it, and filed it. Because June is for writing. For writing fiction, that is; and specifically cool, magical, medieval, paganish fiction set in places with old trees and mossy stones. I am about to start work on the last novella for my collection The Year of Ancient Ghosts (see cover art below). The novella is called “The Lark and the River” and is set around the end of the 11th century when a new church is built on an ancient pagan site and then the shit goes down. The other stories in the collection are:
* “The Year of Ancient Ghosts” about a woman who brings her daughter to Orkney to investigate her husband’s secret past and then the ghostly shit goes down.

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* “The Death of Pamela” in which a couple of Arthur’s knights leave their sister at a spooky castle and then the bathing-in-virgin-blood shit goes down.
* “Wild Dreams of Blood” about a woman who finds out on the eve of her wedding that she is Odin’s daughter and then the frost giant cage-fighting shit goes down.
* “Crown of Rowan”, a prequel to my historical fantasy novel The Garden of the Mad King, in which shit just goes down pretty continually.

I’m super excited!

Looking tired? Try joie de vivre.

While driving past a clinic in Albion last week, I saw a sign out front that read “Looking tired? Try botox.” I can’t begin to enumerate how many things are wrong with this kind of shit, but let’s start with: why pay some shyster hundreds of dollars to inject muscle- and nerve-paralysing toxins in your face just because you’re looking like you’ve lived a little? An appearance of beauty has little to do with smooth skin, and much more to do with vivacity, passion, exultation of spirit.

When I was in England, I watched a fabulous show about Rome hosted by this awesome woman on my right. Her name is Mary Beard, and she’s a professor of classics at Cambridge university, and she’s full of life and light and intelligence and fun. And yet, some limp-dick TV critic  had a crack at her for being “too ugly for TV”. Professor Beard took him down in this restrained and smart riposte, but a few other people have leapt to his defence. Women in the public eye, they say, should take more care with their apperance.

You know what? This obsession with looking “perfect” has simply got to stop. It’s so. Fucking. Stupid. Judging others’ appearance, worrying that you’re butt’s too big, fiddling with your expression: it would only make sense if we lived life in 2D. But we live in 3D. More importantly, we love people in 3D. We love people for smell and heat and texture and sound and energy. All the people I know who are beautiful are full of laughter and energy. We, in turn, are loved in 3D, not for how photogenic we are. I really believe the answer is to get the fuck out of this limited 2D mindset. Stop buying magazines and poring over celeb photos. Stop taking photos of yourself on your iphone and being horrified by how jowly you look or how big your nose seems or any of those UTTERLY MEANINGLESS 2D concerns. Apprehend the world in 3D. Be in the world, don’t be a flat shape in the margins with a frozen smile and your head held at the perfect angle. Live, for chrissake. That’s beautiful.

At journey’s end

This time tomorrow, I will be on a plane somewhere between London and Singapore, on my way home to my babies (whom I’ve started to dream about in vivid detail every night) and my house, car, and cats. My usual response to impending travel, especially long-haul, is to curl in a foetal ball all day and worry about everything that can go wrong. But today is the first fine day in a while, so I said to myself: imagine that you have been given one day here in the Cotswolds in spring; you wouldn’t spend it in bed watching television.

So I went walking up the road and through the mud to Stow-on-the-wold (nearest village: Anglo-Saxon for “place on the wood”), and then I sat in the garden with a cup of tea and gazed out over the rapeseed flowers shining brilliantly yellow in the sun, and tonight I intend to head up to The Fox for a pint of Marston’s Pedigree and a pub meal and YES I will eat the sticky toffee pudding because it’s my last day in England.

But the best part of the day was returning to the churchyard and sitting under that centuries-old yew tree, and listening for voices. Travelling Companion snapped this picture of me, authentically working. The story is called “The Lark and the River” and it’s all about an old yew tree and the building of a new church in a pagan place in the Anglo-Norman period. I don’t know what I was waiting to hear, but I closed my eyes and listened hard. I heard the wind in the trees, birdsong, traffic far away. The wind was cold and I came out in goosebumps. And I heard it: the first line of the story, and with it came a whole avalanche of other ideas. I scribbled them all down.

And for all that I bang on about hard work and craft and sticking at it, sometimes writing really IS magic like that. When that kind of magic happens, I think I’m the luckiest woman alive.

I’ll be home within 48 hours. Get the place tidy for me, will you?

Heathens 2 – Christians 0

Today I went in search of a Thor stone, an ancient monument thought to be one of Thor’s thunderbolts, just kind of leaning on somebody’s fence in the tiny village of Taston (which was known as Thorstan, or Thor stone until about the 13th century). You can see from the photograph, that it’s pretty tall (I’m 171cm, for reference). Thor didn’t seem to mind me leaning on it.

 

 

Directly across the road is what’s left of an old stone cross. Local legend has it that the cross was built strictly for the purpose of offsetting the evil heathen energy of the Thor stone. But the cross has fallen off and the Thor stone, which is much much older, is still there.

So. Heathens 1, Christians 0.

Then, later this afternoon, I went for a walk through the village I’m staying in and ended up at the little Norman church at the top of the hill. I was delighted to see some Saxon carvings in the porch. It’s likely that a church of some kind has stood on this spot since late 11th century, because the 1085 Domesday survey of the area records 48 inhabitants, including a priest.

But the real star of this church is the ancient yew tree in the graveyard. The Conservation Foundation has confirmed that it’s around 1300 years old. As you can see from the pictures, it’s an impressive, living monument. Yew trees are often in graveyards because they are symbols of eternal life, and they were very important to heathens. You do the maths. The tree is 1300 years old, the church not quite 1000 years old. That means the tree was already a very old tree when the church was built: it was probably the reason the church was built on the site in the first place. Much easier to convert heathens if you put their prospective new place of worship where the old one is. So, Heathens 2 – Christians 0.*

The old yew tree, wide view

And close up, taken from down near the roots


And then I had an AMAZING idea for the last novella in my collection, “The Lark and the River”. I’m going to go sit under that yew tree with my notebook some time before I leave and write all my ideas down. It’s going to rock.

*Yes, I know that Christians actually won in the long term. Well played, Christianity. Not bad for a woman-hating death cult.

Vikings in Sherwood Forest (or, my walk with Thor)

No, it’s not some kind of geeky medievalist’s wish-fulfillment fantasy; there really is a Thynghowe (important Danelaw meeting spot) in Sherwood Forest. And so, intrepid researcher that I am, I went in search of it.

Where fields meet forest

Not quite so easy as it sounds. First, Travelling Companion (hereafter shortened to TC) and I, had to find the start of the walk. It was somewhere near two roundabouts, very close together, with much traffic screaming past at 50 mph. Round and round those roundabouts we drove, til we finally pulled over on a muddy shoulder and hoped our stuff wouldn’t get stolen while we were gone. We had just spent a lot of money at a York sweet shop, so were keen to protect our jelly babies, clotted cream fudge, sour snakes, and dolly mixture.

Into the deep green unknown

We found a muddy path and set off down it. Did I mention the path was muddy? Oh, and by the way, it was muddy. Muddy grooves filled with muddy water, muddy leaves mashed muddily into the muddy sides of the path. I squelched and slipped along it intrepidly, doubting I could actually manage 2 miles of this (miles, people MILES, not cute little kilometres). Then it started to rain. Not your usual English soft rain; it pelted frozen rainballs at us.

I, for one, welcome our new tree overlordsTC and I conferred about whether to continue, when a mighty CRASH-BOOM-SHUDDER of thunder sounded overhead. Who could it be but Thor himself, whacking Mjollnir about, sending us a signal? Unfortunately, because neither of us speak hammer, we weren’t sure what the signal was. “Oh, Thor,” said I, “should we keep going?” CRASH-BOOM-SHUDDER he answered, when a simple yes-or-no would have sufficed.

 

 

The "scary-as-fuck" tree

But we pushed on, despite thunder and hail and mud and, frankly, not being sure if we were on the right path at all because my map had got all soggy and unreadable and because I don’t really have a good sense of direction anyway. The rain eased, and we saw some incredibly old, old oaks in among the conifers, some of which looked like aliens or monsters or alien monsters.

Finally, though, we found the Thynghowe. It is a smallish site in the forest, slightly raised and grassy. It was kind of whelming to be honest, but I’d been to Stamford Bridge that day and imagined Viking warriors fighting with Saxons; so I did my best to imagine Viking elders talking about… stuff. It was a little dull. Maybe that’s what Thor was trying to tell us.

The Thynghowe

What writers do

There were a few funny pictures circulating around Facebook recently, about what people think writers do. Bathing in money, sitting on the couch eating cheese balls, and banging one’s head on the computer were all included. Today, I am writing the final few scenes of the novella “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”, which I have been working on (among other things) for about 4 weeks. I like novellas: for 10% of the word count , they give you about 40% of the joy of writing a novel. I’m frazzled and obsessed and unable to leave it alone in its finishing stages.

In fact, as I was trying to nut out the closing scenes, I had to get out of my apartment, where I have been holed up all day. It’s a rainy day here in York: English rain, which means it’s just a kind of persistent dampness that can’t be arsed to form proper droplets. I wanted to sit with my notebook and conceptualise my ending in my fancy notebook with my fancy coloured pens, so I decided to head up to the pub I’ve loved the most since arriving here, The Hole in the Wall on High Petergate (pictured) and order a bag of chips (crisps) and a glass of wine.

Rain outside. A crackling fire inside. A historic pub in a medieval town, writing up research done on a remote misty island off the tip of Scotland. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, right? At least the kind of dreams I have, and so I thought, “I’ll blog this” because people do seem to like it when I blog this kind of stuff, this aspirational ideal of what being a writer is. Of what writers do.

But while it’s certainly a highlight of the job, it isn’t the whole picture. The other part I’m not telling you is this. I’ve been writing since nine o’clock this morning. I can’t stay off Facebook because I’m procrastinating. I feel a bit sick from the wine and all the tea I’ve drunk, and my arse is sore from sitting all day. I will not watch any television or do any relaxing tonight, because the story is coming and I have to get it down. I will both love myself and hate myself through this process, and then when I’m done I’ll be too wired to sleep and my wrists will feel like jelly. Tomorrow I will wake up feeling as though my body doesn’t fit me properly, and I’ll read it back and decide it’s utter shit.

So yes: today I lived the writing dream. But I also lived the writing life, in the writer’s body. I still love it–love it with the big fat saddlebags of my soul–but it’s not all wine and fireplaces. It’s hard, hard work.

Solvitur Ambulando

Milton used to say this, apparently. You’d know that if you read my novel Angel of Ruin but hardly anyone did so I’m assuming you didn’t know that solvitur ambulando means “it is solved by walking”.
Walking is my exercise of choice. Not just for keeping fit, but because it seems to elevate my mood and make my brain work properly. I have a number of projects on the go here on my research trip, and sometimes while sitting here working on my netbook they become impossible. So I go walking.

Back home, my walk of choice is Mt Coot-tha, but here in York I’ve discovered a brilliant one-hour walk around the city’s medieval walls (see picture). There are stairs and slopes and uneven flagstones and places where there is no handrail, and whole sections of the wall are missing and I have to walk through suburbia (but that’s how I discovered Waitrose!), but it has been keeping my brain ticking over and I love love love it. I’ve finally finished the edit of “Garden of the Mad King” so I’ll send that to my agent when I get home and hope she can find a publisher; I’ve written the first quarter of the novella “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”; I’ve done all the reading and written an abstract for a symposium paper on medievalist internet memes; and I’m writing a paper on medievalism, gender, and World of Warcraft that is coming out in a collection with Routledge next year. I just know that, if i wasn’t walking for an hour every day, I’d just sit here on the couch all day, mouth breathing, playing Bejewelled on Facebook, and the circle of self-loathing would start.

Solvitur ambulando: my prescription for increased cognitive and creative productivity. Trust me: I’m a doctor.