The best laid plans of desperate novelists…

I am at home. I am not in Tasmania, where I was supposed to be. Instead, I am stealing a few minutes while the children watch a Yo Gabba Gabba DVD, to catch my thoughts.

Astrid came down midway through the week with a violent gastro bug, and Mirko and I have been cleaning up vomit and diarrhoea pretty much around the clock for a few nights (they are all starting to blur into each other, so don’t ask me to be any more precise than that). She was certainly not fit to travel, so we have cancelled the whole trip. (Can I just say that I was mightily impressed by Virgin Blue who bent the rules to save us losing our entire fare, and to Europcar and Curringa Farmstay, who were so bloody understanding and didn’t charge us any cancellation fees whatsoever: so rare for companies to show such good will). The cancelled trip means that my crucial research will not get done; this means that my plans for my novel are in turmoil.

Between bouts of irrational fury (for surely it was some careless parent who sent their still-sick child to daycare who is to blame for my work being disrupted) and teary despair (now the book will never get written), there is one hugely important lesson in this for me. I have a sick little zombie girl, who’s all floppy and still, and all that matters is that she gets better on her own time, with lots of cuddles and love (and a mattress on the floor in front of the television). My current predicament is the embodiment of those wise words by Stephen King in On Writing: life is not a support system for art; it’s the other way around.

Workwise, I’ll try to turn this week into a positive. Ordinarily it’s impossible for me to write out of order, but perhaps I’ll just have to do that, and save the scenes that need the most research until a time when I can get away to Tassie. I’ve pulled out my notebook, and I’m going to break the story down, scene by scene, and see if I can set myself the goal of writing 15000 words this week (thus reaching 40000) by just plugging away with what I can do, rather than moaning about what I can’t.

I can hear a little squeaky laugh from the other room; she’s getting better. What is there to be miserable about?

The pains of surgery

No, no, I’m fine. Recovered from my illness with a new determination not to drink any Coke Zero and generally to live healthier. And, after a long time away, returned to my story. To my 23 000 words. Only to find that a good percentage of those words were the wrong ones.

I can thank my magnificent literary agent for pointing out the bleeding obvious to me; that the first six chapters were bristling with extra scenes, ideas, and characters. I finished the phone call to her psyched up to do the cutting, rewrite the new, better, tighter, more engaging scenes, and return to the new writing with focus and vigour. But having just cut 7000 words from the MS, I feel rather despondent. It’s demoralising to see that word count at the bottom corner of the screen fall below 20 000– and well below 20 000, at that– when my imagination had prepared me to be at 40 000 or so this week. I have a research trip to Tasmania booked in a few weeks, and wanted to be vastly more advanced in the MS by then. It’s the literary equivalent of walking miles in the hot sun to the store, only to find you’ve left your purse at home. Except more exhausting. And there’s more of a longing for alcohol. And a tad more self-loathing.

So, once more into the breach, my friends. Onward to the new and improved 20 000 mark, and so on and so on. As Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

Managing illness: epic fail

One thing I am very, very, very bad at is being sick. When sickness comes to my door, I tend to deny it for a while. Then I acknowledge it grudgingly. Then I go to bed and spend hours on end being really angry about it. Finally, I admit that I’m sick and get teary and tense, thinking about (a) how much I’m scarring my children by not being with them and also by being some Victorian figure of a pale, sickly mother (‘kiss Mamma’s withered cheek, my darling, and perhaps we shall meet again if it is God’s will!”), and (b) how much I have to do that isn’t getting done. I have been ill this week and so I haven’t written a word. This particular illness, or the medicine I’m taking for it, has made me vague and confused, so I haven’t even really been able to think about my book. I have a chapter outline that hasn’t been developed beyond what I’ve already written, and only an incomplete sense of where I’m going to go next. Of course, any extended time away from the story makes it that much harder to get back in. And I was going so well! I was past 20 000 words, which is usually a bit of a milestone for me.

I’m always pressing upon my students the need for contingency plans. Life does intervene in the writing process, of course it does. But I realise that I have no such plans for myself. I am such an unforgiving taskmaster. My boss totally sucks!

Is it work, or is it play?

I can’t figure out if writing is my job or my hobby. Putting aside the money, this is one issue that continues to confound me. When I’m not writing, or it’s hard, and the deadline is approaching, and I’d really just rather be on the couch reading a novel, it feels like a job: I have to be organised, keep regular hours, meet goals, etc. And a bloody hard job, too. I’d often rather go in to work at uni; at least there I know what to do and when to do it.

But when the writing is flowing, or I’m sitting in a cafe roughing out scene ideas, or I find a particular piece of research that sparks off a chain of great ideas, then it’s a hobby. Something I do to relax, to have fun, to recreate.

Why does it matter if it’s a job or a hobby? Well, it’s the whole life-balance thing. I subscribe wholly to the theory that a rewarding and happy life comes from loving well, working well, and playing well.  Loving, that’s easy (though I did coin a new term for how one feels living with small children: demorexhaustalised). Working, I do plenty of that and it’s interesting and rewarding. But playing? Is that my writing time, or my meagre 5 hours or so a week of World of Warcraft? If it’s the latter, then I’m out of balance. If it’s the former, then I win life.

So is the answer to play more MMORPGs?* Or is it to stop all this pointless blogging and write a bit more?

Field of Clouds is past 5000 words as of today. My writing buddy has proclaimed that it’s not the pile of utter shite I fear it is, so I guess I just put my head down and keep going. At the moment, it doesn’t much feel like fun. But, as always, that’s subject to change without notice. The only way out is through.

* Massively multi-player online role playing games (or “many men online role playing as girls”)

And the winner is…

One of the reasons I came to New Zealand was to research location, atmosphere, ideas etc for my fantasy novel idea. Certainly, it has provided me with pages and pages of random descriptions and fragments in my notebook (though, damn me, why do I never know the names of trees?). I truly thought that while here, my heart would settle on my fantasy story.

I didn’t bet on the sheep.

You may remember that I have been working on both the fantasy novel and a Kimberley Freeman novel for a few weeks. We did a farmstay back near the glaciers a few nights ago that really changed everything. As I was sitting out on the front deck, looking at the mountains and the horses and the sheep, it was as though a vein opened up in my imagination and all the images started pouring out. I tightly plotted the first few chapters and then decided I actually had to write something, and I’ve been adding little bits ever since. Then, today, I had a little nap while my daughter slept, and woke up with a prologue complete in my head: and I love it. So Field of Clouds wins, and I will save my Mad King for later in the year.

I think one of the problems is that I need to do so much research for the fantasy novel. It sounds mad: fantasy should be just made up, right? But it’s not. Good fantasy gives you the feeling that the world was already there, that it already existed before the hapless writer’s imagination wandered into it. I’m very keen to learn much more about seventh-century England, so that I can build that world with such detail and care: so that it feels real to me, before I go about pushing my poor galley slaves… er… characters around in it.

So, in some ways, I will still be working on both. While I go on my uber-fun journey via 1920s Glasgow, to midlands Tasmania in world war two, to present-day London and New York; I will diligently be reading the book on Anglo-Saxon weapons that my bestie bought me for my birthday, learning about daily life in the seventh century (studiously ignoring the truth about dental care), and maybe even drawing… wait for it… a map!

My first goal is to make good use of my time in February, to get a big chunk done before semester starts at uni. Wish me luck, and watch this space.

My head hurts… no, really

I’ve been plagued by constant headaches for four weeks. My doctor assures me they are most likely “tension headaches”. What could I be tense about?

I have started both stories. I have planned the first few chapters of each, done a little research, and written an opening paragraph for each. Here are the first drafts (subject to change at whim):

Blood. It smelled like the promise of something thrilling, as much as it smelled like the thrumming end of the adventure. It smelled like her father when he came home from battle, even though he had bathed before he took her in his arms. Still the metal tang of it lingered in his hair and beard, and, as she smashed her skinny, child’s body against his thundering chest in welcome, he smelled to her only of good things.

…or…

Beattie Blaxland had dreams. Big dreams. Fashions and fabrics, riches and respect. In her bed, rolled out on the floor of her parents’ room in their finger-chilling tenement flat, she imagined in vivid, yearning detail a future version of herself: poised, proud, almost regal. She had never imagined—nor believed it possible—that she would find herself pregnant to her married lover at the age of only eighteen.

Apart from the fact that they both start with “B”, they don’t really have much in common, do they? So far it’s not hard work because I’m not really taking it seriously. My friend, writer Grace Dugan, who is studying medicine, showed me how to find my “blind spot”. You hold your index finger in front of you and look straight ahead. Then, as you move your finger outwards, you eventually hit an area that your eye can’t see. Your finger disappears. Well, that’s where all my writing problems are at the moment, safely tucked away in my blind spot. It’s quite nice; like being drunk on champagne. Quite nice except for the headaches, that is.

Physician, heal thyself*

I have taught so many wonderful writing students over the years, and I always seem to know the answers to their problems (sometimes they don’t listen to my solutions… at first). So it embarrasses me greatly to admit that I’ve been struggling with my own writing for close to six months now. Dr Kim can’ t even diagnose herself, let alone write an appropriate prescription. I don’t know what brought it on. Perhaps it was publishing book #20 Gold Dust. A milestone–like those milestone birthdays–making me take stock.

The problem is, I have a surfeit of Really Good Ideas. And because I write across so many genres now, I don’t know quite where to throw my energy. Fab idea for children’s book time-travelling series. Cool idea for Brisbane goth YA novel. Desperate keen to write a chicklit all-girl band story. But I’ve narrowed it down to two:

An adult historical fantasy novel, working title “The Garden of the Mad King”, set in an alternative version of Anglo-Saxon England, about five daughters of a tribal warlord and the different paths they take when their father grows too ill to rule.

or

A Kimberley Freeman saga, working title “The Field of Clouds”, about a poor immigrant woman in Tasmania in the 1920s who goes about creating a fashion empire; and her grand-daughter in the present–fleeing a broken relationship and career in London–who inherits her grandmother’s house and all her hidden secrets.

I really can’t decide which one first. On the one hand, the fantasy novel speaks to my soul on so many levels. Get back to the magic, Kim, it says. But the work involved is huuuuge, and there’s 2 books in there I just know it (though trying to deny it to self). On the other hand, the Kimberley Freeman beckons like a crisp new beach-read novel. Let’s have fun, it says Let’s lie on the beach and get lost in it!  Frocks! Shoes! Glamour! (Though, admittedly, hard to type on the beach).

There are other pros and cons to both, some involving contractual obligations, some involving the ongoing viability of my membership to the SF community, some involving how tired I always am because my children wake before six every morning.

But the solution made itself clear to me just the other night. I know it sounds like madness, but listen to this.

I’m going to write… BOTH! Yes, I’m going to write the first chapter of each over the next few weeks. Then if I still can’t choose, I’ll write the second chapter of each. And so on. I’ve always sworn I couldn’t write two books at once, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And I do have the luxury of both a well-paying part-time job and a stay of execution on an imminent deadline.

Of course, it could all be a disaster and, if it is, you’ll hear it here first. But I think the most important thing of all is that I write something. I get very grumpy if I’m not writing and if that was you I shouted at when you took my spot at Toowong Village car park last week I’m very sorry. But I did have my blinker on first.

Wish me luck.

Kim

* my favourite version of this line is the one in the movie Barton Fink when two men come across the beheaded corpse of a doctor: “Physician, heal thyself.” “Good luck with no f**kin’ head.”