Nanowrimo and the risks of research

nanowrimo‘Stretch goals’ we used to call them, when was that? The 90s maybe, then ‘audacious’ goals and then goals somewhere along the line morphed into either challenges or indicators – depending on if you get paid for delivering them. Nanowrimo is a challenge that stretches what you think might be possible for you to achieve within the arbitrary timeframe set for your challenge by the rules of the game . There are lots like it (Inktober for example) and nearly all of them hold their traps and risks. In Nanowrimo, one of the demoralising traps is ‘comparisonitis’ and a risk is ‘research paralysis’.

Nanowrimo and ‘Write what you know’

You’ve probably heard the advice to ‘write what you know’ and during the NANOWRIMO challenge it makes sense because you probably don’t have time to research the thing you want to set your story in or around. If it is fantasy, no worries, make that stuff up and move on (this can be tiring, but there are heaps of tricks to this). You might think you’re off the hook with Science Fiction (or speculative fiction) but oops, not so. Readers are wonderful, clever people with all their attention on your world.

You better have a decent excuse for how that spaceship got to where it is if you expect any of your other technological excuses to fly too. ‘Continuity of world’ is so very important. Readers don’t mind suspending disbelief in one or two areas in the name of entertainment, but you cannot afford to jolt them away from your narrative with broken edges or logical gaps they fall into and cannot get out of.

Nanowrimo can feel like a sprint when you’re trying to get down dialogue between your characters or descriptions of their world, but the moment you come to a real world detail that you know is going to matter, unless you already know it, you stop and check. If you’re experienced at this particular game you do not do this, you simply put in your own code for ‘check this detail later’ (BARNACLE for example – anything you can do a ‘find’ command with) and keep moving because you know that to stop now for research is a terrible risk to run. A risk you probably can’t afford to take.

Research is not writing

Oh it feels so good to be learning something and you just know your characters and plot are going to explode with this fantastic detail you’re getting! Trouble is, oops, where did that hour go? And that one? You’ve only got a limited amount of time for writing and every time you hit up Dr Google to help you with a name for someone or a town or any detail you know you need, you’re going to be distracted. There’s 20 fantastic search results in less time than it took you to hit enter. Even skim reading those is taking your mind away from building what you were going to say next. Research is awesome and one of my favourite parts of writing, but honestly, when you’re up against the clock, indulging in it is a bit of a rick. Type in your best guess, whack a BARANCLE to it, and move on.

Happy story telling everyone.

Buried stories – digging in nanowrimo

Ready to writeCreative writing is an act of faith. It is, of course, also a process and work and I will be taking my own advice in those regards but none of that can happen without the trust that inspiration will come. Do you believe in your muse? Do you have a creative faith that you can form something with your mind or hands that didn’t exist yesterday?

Turning up ready to be inspired, making the time and the space for it to happen, listening closely for those soft but magical words “what if…” those are all the ways that stories begin to edge their way into the world. By the time I’m inside that story, I don’t feel that I’m creating it but rather that I’m digging up something my muse buried for me.

That’s when it is going well. It doesn’t always go well.

Last week I was so sick that I didn’t feel like writing. Actually it was worse than that. I wanted to and couldn’t. I wanted to draw some meaning from being ill, to find some message we could all tuck into our hearts and feel positive about. There was nothing. It wasn’t ‘writer’s block’ so much as ‘writer is empty’. Obviously, if one is not writing, one is not a writer. It is with great anticipation then that I look forward to the culmination of my course of antibiotics and of October with the deeply held hope that November will fill me up again to overflowing with words.

November is the annual National Write a Novel Month (Nanowrimo for short) and you’ve heard me be a fangirl about it before. It is a challenge that gives some extra purpose and pleasure to my life, even though it has never yet resulted in a published story (although for hundreds of participants each year it does exactly that). Every year I try and dig up some tasty fiction. It is a choice I make knowing that I might fail (and knowing that I will feel like a failure anyway), that I will have to give up other things in order to do it, and that ultimately it doesn’t matter.  I do it because I love it. It makes me happy to try.

It is uncomfortable to admit that I don’t know what might come (or not come). I have my ideas and themes, my egoic attachment to producing a single, 50 000 word chunk of fiction during November. I have faith that something will come along. I am here in my chair at the keyboard typing that prayer out to you right now.

Hear me Muse! Lead me to a buried treasure!

I love and hate a sunburnt country

Dorothea MacKellarI have been lucky enough to travel to the other side of the world and visit the ‘home country’ (as it was still being called when I was little). I’d always aspired to this cultural ‘homecoming’  in an unconscious way due to a steady childhood diet of English culture, books, stories, myths, music and television. Badges, foxes and the Queen imbued the world that was valued, but not the world that I inhabited. The world I lived in had bushfires, snakes and Christmas in summers so hot you could burst your skin if you got badly sunburnt. It was confusing.
So I went to England to see the Queen, her Tower, and the Thames. I went to Bath and Stonehenge too as well as Stratford on Avon. It was gorgeous and charming. Every day I was excited to see visit and touch another sacred idea of home. The more I saw, the more I wanted to consume. Tintagel, Cornwall, the Lakes District, Portsmouth, Sussex, Sherwood Forrest all the places and names and stories, I wanted to bring them all to life inside of me, and yet … I was homesick.

I didn’t understand the food, the humour, even the greetings. Oak trees were a revelation to me, but the colours all looked too bright and even soft. It was only in England that I began to truly understand what it is to be Australian, to yearn for a big sky. As is so often the case, a writer had been there before me, and put my feelings so well into their own words.

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

Those are the words of Dorothea Mackellar OBE, the opening stanza of her famous poem. Like me, she was a third generation Australian, grown up with stories of the “home countries” and indeed she wrote this poem while visiting England and feeling homesick (source).

I didn’t know this stanza at the time, but I have often reflected on it since. There are in fact six stunning stanzas to this beautiful poem, which it is not currently in vogue to love, as I unashamedly do. But I also hate it, as I sometimes hate the way our country is so very hard to live with. I’m watching the footage on the television of the State of Victoria burning, and I’m feeling terror flood my body. I can hear the popping of the oils in the gums and smell the heavy smoke rushing ahead of the roaring fire front. I feel for the people fleeing their houses, with pets and livestock if they have the time, treasured photos and documents, or just their lives if the wind makes an unexpected push. Next week it could be our neighbours, or Queensland. People wonder at our humour when the farmers of the west can say, “Not much here to burn since the four years of drought.”

I can’t laugh. Grief overtakes me. Floods may come soon after, or the rains may not come for years yet, as El Nino grows in strength here and sends La Nina to Argentina.

Sometimes I hear city people say “Why do they live there if they know it is a bushfire zone?” and it is a reasonable question for all those millions of Australians who’ve always lived in suburbs or the cities. But not for those who love those ‘far horizons’ that you get in the bush. If you’ve lived in the country, then the odds are that the country lives on in you. We’ve made these nests of humans along the coasts where cyclones and storms might be the seasonal threats and when they pass through the locals shrug and say “It is just part of life, part of living here.” They would never leave either. They love the ‘jewel-sea’. Why does this love hurt? It is love, we all chose to stay – far though we may roam.

Sunburnt and happy

Australians like to travel, we all have stories to flesh out and names to bring to life in the far distant lands. We are the long-haul hard-core travellers. It is long hours to even our nearest neighbours. Nearly all of us come back here, gratefully, to this place with the contradictions that form us and the skies we miss and the beaches for endless holidays. We boast of our sunburn and deadly animals, much as we work hard to avoid them all at any cost. Sometimes I think the bush ballads are too honest now for our desire to be sophisticated and urbane. I am torn between the unendurable summers and their suffering and the longing I have when I’m gone. I envy Dorothea the clarity of her vision, and the resilience of her spirit in facing a lifetime without air-conditioning!

I’m a long way from resolving my passionate confusion over this country and even my relationship with this poem. I will grieve for our brothers and sisters in Victoria who face such hardship this week, and support them when the times comes to rebuild as we all know and trust that we will do for each other here. Because one thing is always true in Australia, this is not a land tamed by humans, it is not domesticated. Slowly, every generation, it seeps into our souls ever further and we are trained to live with it, we are the ones who must learn her long and secret ways. We are stubborn, but she is eternal. I may well spend many years trying to hear that gum-soft whisperof her love. For now we shall leave the last words to Dorothea (listen to her recite the poem).

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand –
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.
Image source.

Inky Water

dolphins at night

Inky water gives no ripple as we enter,
no need to sink, it is all deep.
Here fears show their own faces
Breathe despite your worry you cannot drown.

This is you, stripped of illusions,
revealed in the shadow’s world.
This is your eternal womb, your own mystery.

Come, join me in the search.
Break the satin surface of this blood-hot reservoir.
There are no tourists here,
we are all seeking the fullness of union.

No light from the other side penetrate.
You must make friends with echoes,
be guided by reflections
Embrace private riddles, brambles and thorns.
Sway in generous currents of eternal grace and beauty.

This juicy place is the source.
We are molten and reformed to wake anew.

 

Image source.

NaNo-riffic writing fun

NaNoWriMo participant banner 2014It is November and so the Nanowrimo is upon us. Praise be!

I love this crazy, silly fun and free festival that over the years is helping me learn how to write. This is my 8th or 9th year now (? I’ve lost count)  and maybe it has taken that long to learn how to participate, but finally I enjoy this personal challenge more than nearly anything else. I did a beginner triathlon – not as hard. Rode a bicycle 100klms in a day – sure it needed a lot of snickers but it was done in a day. Writing 50 000 words in a month – you need to really turn up for that. Of course here in Week One it does seem like fun, you’re a lot less likely to hear many participants extolling the joys around week 3 when everyone’s stamina and plot seem to run out at the same time.

That’s a thing I’ve learnt, Nano has its own rhythms and as a writer you’ll need a different strategy for each week. The organisers understand this and the support structure is incredible. If ever you have considered that you’d like to write a novel or a play or the story of your Great Grandmother, now is the time to start. Jump in to the idea that you can do a lot more than you imagine. Join the groups where people share their dark moments and their wins. Strangers will cheer for you as you meet your own goals and people who are also writing will understand the tears and joys you’re having. Writers don’t generally stride around in big groups banging drums and cheering everyone having a go – during November it is different – there’s somewhere just for you. I love seeing those posts coming through – people dancing for joy in their lounge rooms or bedrooms saying things like “I never thought I’d make it, but I DID!” and your own heart swells for them.  Then you have a draft. A whole draft. Imagine that, it is dizzyingly exciting.

Editing and rewriting, well that’s for another time. Right now you just need to hit today’s word count target and then tomorrow’s. And then the next day, and the day after. Etcetera etcetera, etcetera. See you in December.

 

Hermit muse

Just a quick note to let you know that I’m over on another blog this week – guest posting on the wonderful Two Sides Tarot about one of those darker cards, The Hermit.

It is in two parts the first is on the card and the reading I designed for it and the second is a sample reading to give a feel for how the positions play off the cards.

Such a pleasure to write something quite different from the usual day-job of translating corporate jargon into plain English. That has some rewarding moments, but it certainly isn’t generally spiritually enriching.

I’m looking forward to sharing a wider range of things with you over the next six months, and this is a good step in expanding my comfort zone and showing more of the range of work that I do. I do hope you enjoy it.

 

 

Revising a first draft for the first time

Last November I wrote about being half way through writing a first draft of a novel. It did get finished (triumph!) and now I am half way through revising it.

revision of first draft pages
This edit has already taken as long as the entire drafting process (in calendar days – I should have tracked working hours and didn’t) and the single word I would use to describe this process is humbling.

The focus for the first draft was to get it down, just get an entire draft done. Revising (with a patiently waiting small group of ‘first response readers’ standing by tapping their feet) is about all the usual editorial stuff, but the big thing has been to address all the bits that got tagged with “fix this later” or summarised as “something great happens here so they get to blah”.

Those were fine stopgaps at the time and the right thing to do to keep the draft moving, my challenge now in this first mammoth rewrite is to find fresh creative juice to solve the problems I made and then walked away from. Coincidentally nearly all of them are where the story took another turn away from the outline.

Each step away from the outline made the final shape of the story and of the characters different to what I had planned. A better, more interesting, and authentically driven from the characters’ viewpoints story, but different enough that now I feel on my own and overwhelmed trying to patch it seamlessly into a readable experience.

I’m loving the process, by the way, in case that sounded like a moan.

I’m learning too (I can’t help but learn when the red pen tearing the draft apart is my own) which is delightful. This is my first time on a big job. Over the New Year break I took the opportunity to read and re-read a few tips from those who’ve been down this path before me, and they all agreed on one thing “stop procrastinating and get back to work”.

What is your number one tip for taming a first draft?

A review of “Write. Publish. Repeat.”

Writing is an art

This is a reprint of the review I orginally posted on Goodreads. You are welcome to follow me there if you like.

Write. Publish. Repeat. (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success)Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This sharp and pacy book checks you out first to see if you’re the right reader. I love that, I know if I am or not and then I either self-select out (no hard feelings) or go on to gobble up the goodies.

There is no secret to the subject of this book, it is about publishing books and how, what you might not expect is how truthful and outcome driven it is.
There are hard truths to writing (especially for those of us with day jobs) and this is not a scammy work-around book dealing quick fixes. These guys expect you to create the wordcount. There are plenty of other great books out there on writing and style and punctuation and so on to help you with the content of your wordcount. This book is about what to do next inside a strategy aimed at sloughing off the day job eventually. If the readers think you’re worth it.

Yes, I said ‘wordcount’ not writing or prose or storytelling. There’s a pushy, brass-tacks tone to most of this book and no matter what you write you’ll find helpful information in here. Actually, you’ll find helpful info for each step of the strategy. I topped out on my first read at about Chapter 3 or 4. Once I catch up, I’ll be taking notes again for the next stages.
For me, my big ‘ah-ha’ out of this first read through was getting the very clear distinction that “Writing is an art. Publishing is a business.” and that not only was it ok to treat them differently, I needed to.
You might think that is obvious, but I’ve been tortured by it.
Then there was heaps more great gear on fans, how to use the 80/20 rule to focus and prioritise, and some pretty blunt “pointers” on what to stop wasting my time on.
Overall I found this book to be really helpful. Really, really helpful.

If you’re squeamish about language or precious about writing, this book is not for you, but as I mentioned, they’ll let you know that in the free sample. On the other hand, maybe just make the call to take it on the chin this time, after all, if you’re a newbie to self publishing and you hope to make a living writing then you need to hear what they have to say.

View all my reviews

To be inspired but not ensnared

50-year-tardis

Lots of us are fans. I bet you are, and I know I am.

There are loads of writers that I want to pay tribute to over time, people who’ve shaped my reading and so my mind and so my writing. Today though, and probably only ever today, I will honour a TV show because it is the 50th anniversary of Dr Who.

Dr Who was my second love and it has been a complicated relationship from the very beginning. He snuck in through the “cathode ray nipple” and began to challenge my world and bring excitement to a safe and happily mundane childhood.

I was little, very little, when the ABC (That’s the Australian BC, not the American) began showing Dr Who at weeknights before the news. Watching the news was my mum’s ritual and she would put the TV on while she prepared dinner so that she wouldn’t miss the start of it. Forever in my mind the two theme songs are entwined around feeling safe, hungry and a little bit hopeful that there might be pie for dessert. Mum was with us, adult things were being taken care of, and adventure was available in easily manageable 25 minute episodes.

It was the third Doctor (John Pertwee) that I first remember, and it took me a while to warm to him. I wasn’t sure where I stood with him and I didn’t always like how he spoke to other people. I thought he was a bit of prick actually, but when you’re little you’re not allowed to say that about adults, especially clever adults with power. You knew he had power because the Brigadier always did what The Doctor told him to do. Even when the Brigadier didn’t like it. So he was obviously as powerful as a mum, maybe more. Then something magical happened, and he was still the Doctor and in the TARDIS, but he was someone new. Hello to Tom Baker. BOOM. That was it. I was hooked.

I grew up with Tom Baker’s gorgeous goofy grin (he was The Doctor from 1974 until 1981) and when he left, I sobbed. I couldn’t not. A part of my life was over.

The Doctor changed again, he was still there, in the TARDIS, but now he was in cricket whites and as far as I knew he was Tristan from All Creatures Great and Small (another beloved show in our house, based on the James Herriot books).

I was torn. Who was this new man? I didn’t want to let go, I didn’t want him to change. Change had drawn me in and now it pushed me away. Complicated. I compared, I watched repeats. The same way you don’t tell the truth about the old man, you let it slide that the handsome new one is not to your taste.

I had entered the realm of fandom.

Don’t get me wrong, life went on. I could get my own books out of the library, I had my own radio, I even went to high school. In my own small ways I started to participate in a broader cultural life. When I started to write, it was as a fan. My first major foray into story was a fanfic piece based in the The Day of the Triffids world.

Writing is an odd thing to do. Writers use everything they’ve ever come across to make new things. Or at least new-enough. It is a maelstrom of influences and quotes and vibes and kaleidoscopes of blitzing colours and soundtracks and sweet adjectives in here, and as each word squeezes its way out through that mix, it gets a flavour and a tone and a little bit of something else and eventually, if you’re lucky, you have your own voice. And if you’re very unlucky, you’ve got somebody else’s voice. It happens.

Dr Who took a big long rest pause around about the same time I tried to grow up and be an adult. He was off-air from 1989* until the reboot in 2005. I spent those years being employed and largely not-writing, or trying to not-write because writing was stupid and pointless and who would read it anyway?  These were the ‘secret scribble’ years it is a terrible thing to live with, that relentless self loathing.

Self loathing leeches into everything else too, don’t you find? For me it was hard to be happy and joyful in the world when the eyes I used had a film of despair over them. Fiction was there to escape into, bountiful, amazing, expansive fiction. So many books, such amazing worlds and stories. I read everything, but I was addicted to Science Fiction, it was so satisfying and so safely otherwhere!

But where does being a fan lead the creative mind? It leads to the desire to share and to create. If you’re too attached too closely to a specific thing, it can lead to living and working only within that realm. Every time I tried to write (for years!) what came out was just wrong and contorted. It just never worked the way I wanted it to. I was a writer missing the ‘story’ gene.

Time to confess something.

I hated the new Dr Who. Hated it. I watched enough that I could disparage it. I watched the next season too (just to be sure it was rubbish). I was ensnared in being ten years old and hating whoever killed Tom Baker. I was ensnared in being despairing of ever finding my voice, I was ensnared in feeling betrayed by the promises of SciFi for a shiny future in which, if not TARDISes (yes, that is the plural) then surely at least spaceships were coming. They never came. I did not know I was lost.

Luckily, one day, after another of my invective-filled rants about how rubbish the new Dr Who was, a dear friend showed me how lost I was. He said “I like having a show I can watch with my eight year old nephew.” I’d like to think that at the time I had a graceful response to that, but I doubt that I did.

It is a show for children.

I watched it again, as a child would, for fun. I thought about letting it be an escape. I thought about what my nieces might be watching after school homework and before dinner. I remembered the fun things about being a fan of something but not so attached to that identity that it needs to be supported by an encyclopedic knowledge of production details. If it was just for fun, it was ok to miss episodes or to wink into the camera occasionally or for there to be zippers in the back of aliens. I started to have a really good time. I started to be inspired.

So I may not have been there for all 50 of your years Doctor, but the nearly 40 that I remember have been pretty important to me. You, in all your different faces and wonderful coats and delicious hats, you have helped me to find my self. You have helped my friends guide me back from a long darkness, and you have helped me find my own voice from inside the vortex.

Thank you Dr Who and Happy Anniversary.

(*I’m sorry to be rude, but I can’t count the 1996 Eighth Doctor. Sorry. You did the best you could. Let’s not play the blame game.)

Halftime is not halfway – Six writing lessons from Nanowrimo

Writing at Sandgate

It is November 15 which means I should be halfway through drafting a novel, and I am, so the world is a shiny, happy place for a few hours and I dance and I smile and my workmates edge away from the crazy lady.

I love NaNoWriMo for this annual push and sense of communal urgency to create a work of fiction as whole as possible inside the month. In some ways, the arbitrary restrictions of the Nano game have taught me a lot that I needed to learn about the discipline of writing. I’ve had a crack at Nano every year since 2006 and ‘won’ it only twice so far but I’ve got my best game on this year.

So what exactly has NaNoWriMo taught me about writing?

  1. Turn up and tune in. Sit. Write. Sitting in the chair is no good if the clock’s not ticking and the words aren’t coming.
  2. Deliver the words. Want to write a book? Produce a daily word count towards it. You set the rules, but measure yourself. Do whatever works for you. I like gold stars. There is a part of me that is still 8 years old and will do *anything* to get a gold star on a chart. I wish I’d known years ago that all it would take to relight my writing was about $3 worth of shiny stickers and a wall calendar!
  3. Have fun. If the writing is getting boring, you’re doing it wrong. Call a friend and bring in your plot ninjas or drop your characters into hot water.
  4. Say no. Say no throughout September, and October to things in November, especially if you hold down a day job. You’re going to need those weekends for your story. You’re going to wish you had some holiday time to take or a long commute. Daydream and note down ideas and keep saying no to everything else. Time is words.
  5. Kill your darlings. Yeah, I stole that one from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch* (via Faulkner). I’d heard it before but never really understood it until I re-read some of my rambling, no tension, and precious manuscripts and nodded right off to sleep. I’d put so much effort into making beautiful characters I didn’t want anything bad to happen to them. Oh dear. Total snooze fest.
  6. Finish. Is that obvious enough? I didn’t get that for a long time. I thought – ‘I’ll get back to that one next week’ and … nothing. So now it doesn’t matter how, or where the plot ends up, or what weird contortions I put those characters through, together we’re all getting to the finish.

That gets a first draft done. It is admittedly small draft, but a whole one. It is no where near half way through completely finishing a novel, but it is an incredibly satisfying milestone along that path and it feels great. So today I mark halftime in the word production schedule and celebrate being on track with a nice shiny gold star. I wish you all the very best in your writing goals too.

Have you played the Nano game? Please share your writing tips in the comments.

* The full quote.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings”.