How to edit: a pictorial guide

Before I can finish my next novel, I have to make some changes to the first 70 000 words (which, unfortunately, weren’t working very well). Such a task can be overwhelming, so this is what you do.

1. Go to a location far away from phone and internet where you will feel guilty if you don’t work.

 

 

2. Write down a one-line summary of each scene in the story, as it stands, on a file card.

 

 

 

 
3. Arrange the file cards in chapters on a large surface (like a luxury king-size bed) so you can get a bird’s eye view the whole story, or at least the chapters that need attention. Now stop and think for a bit. What needs to be cut? What needs to be inserted (make a note of inserts on different coloured cards)? What scenes need to be combined or moved? Here is some thinking music…

 

4. Now make a list in your notebook of all those fixes. Make sure there are check boxes next to every point! Colour-code them if you want it to look super purty.

 

 

 

5. Transfer the list onto your computer copy, make a note (using “comments” in Word) wherever something needs to be done. Sometimes it will be a simple tweak, sometimes it will be a big fix. The example at the left shows that I need two new scenes and a bit of rewriting in a third scene. You might have dozens of notes to start with. As you complete the notes, you delete them. The number of notes decreases in a pleasing fashion.

 

 

6. Added fun can be had by ticking the check-boxes in your notebook!

 

Fresh ink

I made it through a good four decades of my life as a total cleanskin. I had always been interested in tattoos, but never got one for fear of how it would look when I was 80 and in a nursing home. Then time began to wear its tracks on my body and I thought, you know what? I’m going to change forever anyway. So last year I had a small tattoo inked on my left forearm.

You may notice I've also stopped biting my nails

What I really liked about my first ‘too is that it said something to me that was deeply personal and meaningful. Another idea that has become meaningful for me recently is the idea of harvesting. It’s true that I’ve spent a lot of my time as an adult ploughing, sowing, watering, fertilising, but haven’t really reaped much of a harvest. What I needed, I told myself, was to write the word HARVEST on the back of my hand to remind myself, the way you might write BUY TOOTHPASTE somewhere prominent when you’ve already forgotten it a hundred times.

And so here’s my new tattoo, which is the Viking rune for “harvest” (jera). It has all these lovely pagan resonances of seasons and time and agriculture, and the design is supposed to represent two scythes. I originally put it there as a reminder to harvest but, Viking magic being what it is (and remember, I don’t believe in magic except on days that I do), it’s actually a spell of sorts: to bring me my harvest. Let’s just say I’m being very careful what I sow of late.

I don’t know about tattoos. Lots of my friends have them, lots don’t. I don’t think tattoos mean you’re dangerous or cheap, nor sexy or cool. They just are what they are: a permanent mark on your body that says something to you or about you. I’m not ruling out a third. And if I do, dear reader, I’ll give you the whole story once again. Just as I’ll give the whole story to my grandchildren, when they’re sitting on my lap in the nursing home.

School’s out

I teach a lot. I mostly teach writing, though I do give a mean Beowulf lecture. I teach at University of Queensland in their postgraduate writing program, I designed the content for the Queensland Writers Centre’s Year of the Novel online program, I have mentored emerging writers, and I teach at the Queensland Writers Centre on a range of different programs: usually taking up about a dozen weekend days a year. I have been immensely privileged to see the slow waking of passion in writers, as they realise they can finally fulfill their dream of writing a story. I feel so appreciated by my many students, and now by my Faculty at UQ who have just awarded me a Teaching Excellence Award (this follows on from the Research Excellence Award I won in September, so colour me delighted).

My last Year of the Novel class for 2011

But it’s time for me to take a little breather. Having two kids and one job is hard enough. Add into the mix that I am also two authors, and I teach in the community, and it totals about four jobs all together so unless I can figure out a way to survive without sleep, the madness has to end. I’m taking a year off from the Year of the Writer program at QWC and have been successful in my application for sabbatical from UQ for first semester next year. This means I get to take a semester off from teaching to work on a research project, and it also means I’m going to be spending a lot of time wandering around northern England and Scotland looking at the ways Vikings have been memorialised in local culture and tourism.

As much as I love teaching, I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have a break from it. I have a pretty efficient engine, that can run on very little fuel. But after the year I’ve had, I have a deep, deep need to fill myself to the brim with the equivalent of that fancy 98-octane middle-class petrol. (You see how much I need a break? My metaphors are starting to suck). Then I reckon, I can produce something wonderful.

Thanks to all my past students, who have challenged me to articulate what makes good writing and thereby made me a better writer.

An adventure in poetry

I love reading poetry. I love the concentrated language, the gist-ful risks it takes, and the way it almost-but-not-quite goes purple if you squeeze it a little. But I pretty much suck at writing it, so I rarely do it. I would rather write an entire novel than try to distil a thought in poetry. Nonetheless, as the blog title indicates, I gave it a crack because I’ve been… ahem… inspired lately. It’s nice to be inspired, if you know what I mean. 😉

WE ARE LIKE THE SEA

We are like the sea, my love and I.
I am the bay, waiting tentative at the entrance between great headlands,
Still and uncertain sometimes, a servant to the sky’s whims:
Her blue preening, her cloudy tantrums.
Ah, but he is the ocean,
Ozone-scented, fresh, and rushing all around me.
He knows himself—the sun in his shallows,
The thundering depths,
The green-blue embrace, warmed by sharded light—
Where at last I sink,
And arrive
Softly.

Writing (about Odin) fixes everything

Odin, as seen by Arthur Rackham.

I’ve been through a few non-bloggable ups and downs in the last year, and it has been hard to attend to my writing. I hear this a lot from students I teach: they often stop writing when life gets a bit complex (as it always will at some stage) and then they fall out of their stories and can’t get back in. Absolutely, it is difficult to concentrate on your writing when there are so many distractions and demands on mental and emotional energy.

But I’ve found that if life gets hard and I stop writing, my melancholy deepens, my sense of hopelessness intensifies, my feelings of displacement echo more loudly. I am 70 000 words into Isabella’s Gift, the next Kimberley Freeman novel (you can read about it over there), but have temporarily put it on hold to attend to some heavy paperwork and sort out a bit of research. Because it’s bad for me to stop writing all together, I’m writing a short story that is quickly turning into a novella. It’s called, tentatively, “Dreams of Wild Blood”, and it’s about a girl who has grown up with supernatural strength and has learned to hide it, and she finds out on the eve of her wedding that Odin is her father. Adventure, drama, and cage-fighting with frost giants ensues. Dear Lord I am having a good time writing it. I’ve spent this morning in bed with lots of cups of tea, a copy of the Poetic Edda at my elbow, and my netbook on my lap, banging out a couple of thousand words. So. Much. Fun. It makes the mountain of legal forms waiting for me on my desk much less foreboding.

And that’s my point. Writing fixes everything. Instead of saying, “I’m too depressed to write”, you should say “I’m depressed: I must write.” Don’t make writing another chore, another heavy expectation, another unwanted obligation to fit into your miserable day. Make it the place you go to get away from all that shit, your rabbit-hole, your luxurious den of Viking mythology (or whatever it is you are writing about). There is so much pleasure in writing: why deny yourself of it in times that are bleak?

“Dreams of Wild Blood” will be published in a new e-journal called Australian Review of Fiction in February next year. I’ll let you know.

Okay, I’m officially old, conservative, and out of touch

I’ve tried to put getting old off as long as I possibly can. Sometimes I knock the GST off when I tell people my age. I try to keep up with technology. I listen to new bands. I refuse to mutter darkly about Gen Y (without Gen Y, we’d haz no lolcats!). But today, I feel really really old. The reason? I’ve just found out that it’s been twenty years since the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind album.

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.

Twenty frickin years.

I remember all the hype in the 80s, when the twenty year anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s happened: a bunch of (what I then considered) lunatic cashed-up boomer hippies grasping pathetically to their youths going around saying, “It was twenty years ago today.” I revelled in my twenties as though they were never going to run out. I was never going to be a lunatic cashed-up Gen-X grunger grasping pathetically to my youth going around saying, “Oh well whatever never mind.”

And yet, I do still listen to my 90s music. There’s plenty of Radiohead and Pumpkins on my fancy iPod in my luxury 4WD. I play Astrid videos of The Breeders and Sonic Youth on my giant flat screen TV. I often stream my Tori Amos and Kristin Hersh albums via my integrated wireless sound system. OH MY GOD, I AM BECOMING A GIANT CLICHE!

So much has happened in twenty years. I got me an educashun, I published 21 books, I had two children, I started and ended a marriage. I have lived such a lot of my life. Why, then, does Nevermind feel like it was just yesterday?

I recently listened to author Claire Corbett talk about the phrase “time flies”. In fact, as she pointed out, the original Latin (tempus fugit) means “time flees”. Time is a fugitive. It’s running away from you. I really feel that today. A special shout-out to my Mellon Collie Gen-X friends on this fine morning, here in the future.

Wheel of Fortune

I have been sitting on some pretty big news for the last few months, and I’m only just now at liberty to talk about it. It seems that my alter ego, Kimberley Freeman, has attracted some serious attention internationally. Wildflower Hill, my twenty-first novel, has done some very big things. Back in May, I was offered a very very VERY significant deal by a German publisher. There was bidding, offers, counter-offers. It felt as though I was living somebody else’s life for a little while. When the final offer came in via email I just sat there looking at it, speechless, for a full twenty minutes. Then I went out and bought a new car.

I thought that might be it for me, all the staggering news my modest career could support. But then I had word that Wildflower Hill had been selected in the United States as the Target Book Club Pick, and in Canada for the Walmart Book Club. The number of books ordered to meet the projected demand probably amounts to more than I’ve ever sold of all my books in all territories combined (and did I mention there’d been 20 of the mofos?).

But this post isn’t just a shameless brag (thought it is, absolutely, a brag). These wonderful successes have really got me thinking about the wheel of fortune. Not the game show (which, I might add, I was very very good at), but the tarot card that symbolises a radical shift in fortune. You’ll see from the picture that when somebody’s at the top, somebody else is at the bottom. The message is that those positions aren’t firm, can shift any time, in your favour, or against you. I have had times when I’ve felt as though the bottom is the only aspect of the wheel I’ll see. I tend to keep my career disappointments to myself–after all, I am published and established so mustn’t complain–but I assure you there have been many. The wonderful thing is that now, while I’m sitting smugly at the top, I am very much aware that it can’t last, not forever. I’ll enjoy the view while I’m up here, for sure. But my real successes are measurable in the relationships I have built, the love that I have given and received, the good will that I have enjoyed in every facet of my life. And, as the song goes, they can’t take that away from me.

The romance of work

When I was a little girl, I read a book that would affect me profoundly. It was Gladys Malvern’s The Dancing Star, first published in 1944, an account of the life of Anna Pavlova, written for children. Like many little girls, I dreamed of being a ballet dancer but unfortunately I was very very bad at dancing and didn’t progress beyond the one disastrous Christmas concert (let me just say: if you’re a blue fairy and you’re with the pink fairies when you’re not supposed to be, you stand out). But it wasn’t the stuff about ballet that affected me so deeply, it was the stuff about work.

According to the book, Anna Pavlova was obsessed with dancing. She practised all the time. She did it until her toes bled and she just. kept. going. This notion, that one could work so hard and push through barriers of extreme discomfort, really took hold of my imagination. From that moment on, I understood the incredible romance of work: diligent hours spent on something that mattered to make an outcome appear in the world.

This is why I don’t hold much with the myth of inspiration: the idea that somehow you must have about yourself the perfect set of preconditions for creativity to be bestowed upon you by a muse. Coleridge stopped writing “Kubla Khan” when a “gentleman from Porlock” stopped by on some business or another, and interrupted his flow of inspiration (Coleridge clearly never had responsibility for small children, who are magnificent porlockers). The myth of inspiration is pleasantly mystical, I suppose, but it isn’t nearly so effective as work.

Work in the early morning hours when the family is asleep. Work until late when the words are flowing. Work on a freshly printed manuscript with a brand new pen while it rains outside. Work when it all seems too hard and your metaphorical toes are bleeding and you have to push through the pain. Work on something you care about so passionately that, like a new lover, you can’t leave it alone. Art, when viewed in this light, is not a divine bolt from above, but the sweet, constant labour of real human beings manifesting things with their feet in the soil. And there is no idea about art more pleasing to me than that.