Eight years old again

Sunrise on the Exmoor coast.

Sunrise on the Exmoor coast.

About a year ago, I had a dream that I found an old notebook with outlines and ideas for a story I was writing when I was eight. On the cover was a yellow-and-gold-toned photograph of the sea at sunset, and inside was lots of my loopy, girlish writing. Finding this notebook filled me with impossible bliss. I’d found it! That thing that made me happier beyond all other happinesses! When I woke in the grey dawn, I almost wept. That pleasure of putting stories together as a child was what had driven me to write for most of my life. But becoming a published author (or, in my case, two published authors) and having deadlines to manage, not to mention a job to hold down and children to raise, had more recently made writing a task to be scheduled into a busy life. Often, I would sit down feeling distracted and despondent, and take a good half hour to get any momentum. I was still writing, still enjoying my stories, but it wasn’t like in the dream, where it was the most perfect joy of them all.

That dream made me revisit my priorities. It’s taken some time and some tough calls, but right now I am writing the sequel to Daughters of the Storm (tentatively called “A Sea of Wings” and yes, it is mostly set by the seaside, just like the photograph on the cover of my dream-notebook), and the feeling is back! I wake up itching to write. The story is playing in my head like a movie the whole time. The solution all along was to make time and space in my mind all throughout the day, rather than forcing myself only to think about the story in the small windows of time I had to write. I’m writing reams and reams and it’s massaging my soul; I’m so happy. I’m even getting great ideas for the next book (a Kimberley Freeman) so I’m hoping to continue riding this wave for a long time to come.

Remember, kids: know the difference between what is urgent and what is important. Writing is the most important thing that I do. Everything else can wait a little while.

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!

 

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.

My brain is borken

I think I know why this book is taking so long to write. This morning, I spent half an hour rewriting one sentence. The finished sentence is: “The hard ache of missing Rowan had intensified, day by day, since they’d parted.” Not really worth the time investment, as I’m sure you’ll notice. But it started out life as: “She missed Rowan terribly since they’d been apart.” Now I don’t hate adverbs, but the one in that sentence (“terribly”) was propping up a weak-ish verb (“missed”), so I was casting about for a good verb that meant “missed terribly” and couldn’t find one. So I sat here with my eyes closed and imagined missing my own daughter (picture lady in dressing gown, eyes screwed tight, trying to imagine child isn’t in next bedroom). Then I got the idea of an ache, but not a soft sort of bruising or tender ache. Kind of like swallowing around a stone. So I did the whole “stone in her heart” thing but it seemed a bit overused (by me), so then I just put the words “hard ache” together and liked them. So had to rearrange the sentence.

Then I realised I needed to signal to the reader (who hasn’t been in this character’s viewpoint for a while) that the reason she’s missing Rowan so much is that some time has passed. At first I wrote “in the week since…” But again, it was too literal or something. So I tried “moment by moment”. God help me, I’ll admit it, I even tried “moment by agonising moment” but that seemed to go against what I was really trying to say, which was that it hurt but she was getting by. Also, talking in moments meant I could have been suggesting only a few hours had passed. So then I came up with “day by day” and I liked that. It indicates enough time passing, and it has a lovely rhythm and a stoked energy without the hysteria of “day after day”. Also, the parenthetical commas make it sit just outside the sentence, and emphasise the idea and the rhythm neatly.

So then I just had to organise the parts of the sentence so that they fit together without being too complex, because I don’t want the reader to stumble on the sentence. That is, for all the work I put into it, the sentence should really be invisible, imparting a brief impression perhaps, then disappearing behind the next sentence. Finally, I changed “been apart” to “parted”, just on the old advice that if the verb “to be” is anywhere in a sentence you should see if you can get rid of it. I’m still not sure on that, though. “Apart” is actually a more elegant word, so I might change it back when I have another spare half hour.

I must stress that I don’t do this with every sentence, but I do like to nail the emotional lives of my characters. I guess I could just keep writing, finish the damn book, and fix it in the edit; but sometimes if the sentence works okay (“She missed Rowan terribly since they’d been apart”) you might not notice it in the edit. There’s nothing wrong with that sentence; there’s nothing missing from it. But if I hadn’t spent the time on it, there’d be a tiny sliver of shininess lost from the story forever.

So, yeah, expect the book no time soon.

Breaking backs

Just a short one. I am setting myself the challenge this week of writing 15 000 words (by midnight Saturday), thus taking me to 40 000 words, which is a significant number and should constitute roughly a third of the book. This blog will function as my public accountability. Rather than posting a new blog each day, I will just edit this one so check back if you want to see how it’s going.

Monday
Up at 2.30 today, tending to the sick infant. Couldn’t sleep after, so came in here to write. 2407/15000 (total word count: 27465)

Tuesday
Finally had a good night’s sleep and wrote just over 3000 words between 5 and 7.30am. 5438/15000 (total word count: 30496)

Wednesday
Didn’t write this morning. My neck was stiff from too much key-mashing in WoW last night. Just sat down to do daily quota now. 7193/15000 (total word count 32251)

Thursday
I would like to be going faster, but I had to write a whole chapter I hadn’t planned on;  had to stop and research in between scenes. 9990/15000 (total word count 35048)

Friday
Feeling very tired today, and I can hear Mirko playing hide’n’seek with the kids and certainly don’t want to be here at my desk anymore. 12738/15000 (total word count 37796)

Saturday
This morning was the hardest morning yet. One a.m. wake-up call from 6yo with nightmares. Hardly any sleep after that. I’m exhausted, but I made it. 15042/15000 (total word count 40100)

End of post.

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…”

Adventures in first person

Have you tried first, second, and third? No, not bases. Persons? I’m talking viewpoint, not teenage sex (that should get me a few extra hits this week).

After feeling despondent about my first chapter of my new book, I had a 3am epiphany about what was wrong with it. I had written it in 3rd person (“she did this, she did that”) when I really should have written it in 1st person (“I did this, I did that”). All right, it wasn’t so much an epiphany as a strong suspicion, and the only way to test if I were right was to rewrite it. I balked at this of course. I am Dr Decisive when it comes to writing (usually, until book #20 stole my mojo), so it was very painful for me to have to go back to the drawing board over such a small mechanical thing.

But wait, not so fast. Not such a small mechanical thing at all. Not just changing the pronouns. Because I chose to rewrite rather than just edit, I found that the moment I switched into first person, good stuff started to happen.

You see, the usual argument over whether to choose first or third person is simple, and goes like this:
First person = direct & engaging, but limited access
Third person = great access, but loss of directness
Second person = only crazy people write this way

I’ve never had much trouble creating a direct, emotional connection in third person, so it’s my usual preference. But on this occasion, I found that using first person forced me to account more fully for the character’s feelings and motivations; that I couldn’t gloss over anything anymore; that I had to be specific. Compare for yourself:

Beattie Blaxland had dreams. Big dreams. Fashions and fabrics and fortune. In her hurley 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.

I had dreams. Big dreams. Not the confused patchwork dreams that invade sleep. No, these were the dreams with which I comforted myself before sleep, in my hurley bed rolled out on the floor of my parents’ finger-chilling tenement flat. Vivid, yearning dreams. A life of fashion and fabrics; and fortune of course. A life where the dismal truth about my dismal family could never touch me again. One thing I never dreamed was that I would find myself pregnant to my married lover, just before my nineteenth birthday. All through February, I obsessively counted the weeks and counted them again, bending my mind backwards, trying to make sense of the dates. My stomach flipped at the smell of food, my breasts grew tender and, by the first of March, I had finally come to believe that  a child-that Henry MacConnell’s child-was growing inside me.

Please don’t take this to mean that I think all stories should be written in first person: far from it. First person has massive pitfalls, especially for the inexperienced writer (where every first person character winds up sounding exactly the same as the others). But this actual switch of perspective has me feeling like I’m inside the story well and truly now, that it’s possible to write it well and on time, and that I will enjoy the company of my latest imaginary friend.

Writing is so fucking easy

I don’t know what I’m thinking, putting the words “easy” “hard” and “fucking” so prominently on my blog. Given that, when I check my stats, the phrase most commonly googled to hit my site is “my head hurts”, perhaps it could work well in my favour to have all that profanity for search engines to crawl over.

I’ve been sitting here this morning writing. Ooh, feels so good! The whole Mount Doom thing has gone away, and thank you for all of your concerned Sam-like comments (though I should stress I was never seriously worried… was I?). All I can say is, when you’re lying in the gutter, even the kerb can seem a long way up.

As always, the only way to solve any writing problem is to write. That’s it. The only solution you’ll ever need, forever and ever, amen. Sometimes it feels like you’re stuck outside the story, and it’s all going on in there but you just can’t get in. Your characters are partying down, listening to doof-doof music (which you can hear faintly), possibly wearing tropicana-coloured eighties clothes, and drinking their vodka with red lemonade; all the while laughing at you. While you’re outside and it’s dark and cold and drizzling slightly but in a miserable way, not in a nice way. Like, it’s getting in your shoes. And you know you could get into the damn party if only you knew the secret password.

Well, the secret password is any combination of words as long as there are 500. If you can write 500 words, even if they are absolute shite, you will be in the party. I’m not saying that the party-goers will necessarily behave when you get in (and they may insist on keeping their turquoise bubble skirts on), but at least you’re in and you can start trying to boss them around.

Warning: they don’t always behave.

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.