A Plan of Action For November …and beyond

People who soar are those who refuse to sit back, sigh and wish things would change. They neither complain of their lot nor passively dream of some distant ship coming in. Rather, they visualize in their minds that they are not quitters; they will not allow life’s circumstances to push them down and hold them under.

~ Charles Swindoll ~

This year it would have been easy to opt out of NaNo. It has been a year which has extended me to the limits, both professionally and personally and sitting on the cusp of November I’m already exhausted and the energy seething below the surface is just the adrenalin build-up which will be quickly spent.

The thing is though, as much as I like to think back and consider every other year as easier than the one I’m facing, it’s a lie. There are no halcyon past NaNos. Every year I’ve juggled writing with at least two other things. The first year it was parenting a small child and completing The Artist’s Way. The second and third years, the small child was a little older and in kindy five days a fortnight, but I had a raft of non-fiction writing commitments. Last year I cleared the slates, came back from holiday refreshed and an editing job fell in my lap which I simply couldn’t say no to.

In 2007 I started writing knowing I would be in Sydney at the Homebirth Conference, which literally kept me away from the page on days 3 and 4 (and that was before I realised the couch I was bunking down on was half my size and the neighbours would have an all night party as I tried to work out which half of my body to put on the couch for several nights) In 2009 I had my lower wisdom teeth extracted on the 30th October. And last year, well we arrived back from Malaysia on the 30thafter a great holiday but one where I spent the majority of my nights wrestling with insomnia and staring at a variety of weird and wonderful ceilings.

There’s always something. Life doesn’t stop. And even when you try to manage it, shit just happens.

The Buck Stops Here…

I live in a world, where other peoples’ words and stories are my bread and butter and my own words and stories take a back seat. Every year when I sign up for NaNo, it is my declaration to my self, my family, my peers and the world in general that writing is still relevant and has a meaningful place in my life. And for just 30 days, it will take precedence over everything else. It will be my first priority. NaNo isn’t just important it is essential to me.

The world doesn’t grind to a halt, I haven’t perfected a freeze ray  or a timetravelling device or some type of looping device which doubles the numers of hours in a day All I have the power to do is re-order my  perpetual (or as Paul likes to term it ‘hydra-headed’) to do list.

At the top, for 30 days, is writing!

NaNo As Platform for Change

For the past two years I’ve tried to use NaNo as a platform for creating a sustainable writing practise (and failed dismally). I have been spat out into December fuelled to keep writing in the past two years, and the new stories penned directly after NaNo have all gone on to be published. So something is happening. It is just not happening all year.

This year I am embracing the wisdom of Jack Dann and some experiences from the earlier in the year in the hope I can kick start a writing practise during November, an enduring routine which will take me through the months after NaNo and hopefully into the years beyond, so I can say with pride I am a writer and an editor, rather than say I am an editor and I try and find the time to write stories as well!

What Jack Said

Jack’s advice is simple:  give writing the best part of your day.

I had an epiphany mid August and Jack’s wisdom back it up. I need to give writing the best part of my day (and myself). Why? Because I’m exhausted from the constant battle between professional editing and my personal writing. I need to find a way to circumvent the sap editing has on my own creativity. I need to find a way to write. I need to find a way to write and edit. I need to find a way to stay sane, grounded and focused. These things in my head need to be reguarly cleared out and deposited on the page.

The upshot is: writing belongs to the morning, to the very first thing I do after I drop my son at school, boil the kettle and turn the computer on – whether it be an hour or three.. These are the hours which are rightfully owed to writing.

Routine Redux

This year I’m planning to write between 9am and 12pm, every day. I will begin by reading a section from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind and follow it up with a free writing exercise for 10 minutes, while listening to Decorder Ring. I did this very routine several months ago and found over the week’s I did it, I found it easier to drop quickly down into my writing space, I didn’t faff around for an hour trying to get started on my short stories. When I  honoured my writing time, I fuelled myself for the business end of the day — regardless of what it was: structural or copy editing, typesetting, admin, webwork. Writing grounds me, gives me a buzz, energises me. This is something I can no longer ignore.

I don’t mind if I’ve become a bit like Pavlov’s dog. I’ve had an article in my head for months now “Pavlov Pressed Play” about the efficacy of music in writing, in it being a propt to drop you easily down into the zone. I promise I’ll write it at the end of November, where I’ll bark loud and proud  about how NaNoWriMo helped me establish new sustainable writing habits which compliment my work as an editor for eMergent.

What do you envisage for NaNo? Do you have a plan of action?

Image via Life is a Bucket

Tips for Keeping Your Sanity During NaNoWriMo

Here are a few tips to help you keep your head during November. For those not participating – there are handy hint below which apply to writing at any time.

1. Think Bigger

Set your word limit above 1667 words a day. The official daily target gives you NO buffer zone, it only gets you across the line if you diligently turn up to write that many words every day, and we all know things happen… life gets in the way. Set your daily word count between 2000 and 2500 words and you won’t get caught out at the end.

2. Set Milestones. Celebrate Small Victories

50,000 words can seem like an awful lot of words to find and 30th November too close, especially if you’re a NaNo virgin. Setting smaller milestones will help NaNo appear manageable – every 10,000 words, every 12,500 words – you decide. Not only decide on the word count but the date you want to achieve it by and how you will celebrate these small victories. In 2008 I set my big milestones at 12,500 words and at each of these points bought a bottle of perfume to celebrate. I finished six days early that year!

Small achievements fuel momentum and November is all about forward motion.

3. Write On in Write-Ins

A write-in is a bunch of wrimos getting together in person to write. They are fun, they are productive and they’re a great way to meet the writers in your local area. If you are predominantly an online writer it can personalise the experience of NaNo. For someone like me, who is a tad competitive, the writing races and highest word counts are extra incentive to get the words on the page.

In 2010  I did the majority of my writing at the four Brisbane write-ins. Without the Write Ins November would have been a very different month (probably one without a winner’s badge!)

To find out more about what’s going on in your area check out the regions section of the NaNo website and get on the mailing list for your area.

4. Embrace the Mundane

When we’re pressed for time it is easy to skip out on the things considered mundane or low priority – such as preparing meals, housework etc. It’s actually a false economy of time and creativity. These mundane tasks, are actually potent forms of creative meditation and can actually assist you, as well as ensuring you’re fed, clothed and living a few steps up from squalor.

5. Don’t be Afraid to Delete

Every word counts in November… am I crazy to even mention deletion?

Take a deep breath… please!

Sometimes your narrative takes a dead end turn and you of course, don’t realise until you’ve crashed into the wall at the end. Not to worry. Cut and paste the dead end into a new file and save as ‘out takes’ (or something far wittier – ‘shit which didn’t stick’?) The words in this file whilst not part of the ongoing project, are still counted towards your total. There is no point labouring on a narrative when a strategic cut can refuel the momentum.

If you can’t bring yourself to hit delete and you ARE at  a dead end or a plot point that refuses to budge consider this technique for finding your way back into the story.

6. Take care of yourself!

Hydrate. Nourish. Exercise.

Yes – I’m on the tangent. But hear me out.

Dehydration impairs mental processing and it happens quicker than you think. Keeping yourself hydrated is one of the best and easiest things you can do to facilitate writing. Unless you absolutely need the caffeine, reach for some H2O instead. I’m keeping a bottle close at hand.

The body requires sustenance. Make a list of meals to cook which are simple, quick and nutritious (our favourites are stirfrys full of veggies) and get all the ingredients for an entire week’s worth of meals. This cuts down on the time spent going to and from the supermarket. It’s also one of the essential. I love chocolate as much as the next person, but the sugar high and crashing low isn’t good for creativity – consider foods which are healthy, nutritious and fit the ‘snacking’ profile, such as nuts.

Exercise increases the feel good hormones in your body, it helps to lower your blood pressure, relax your body, is the perfect antidote for stress and unwinding knots in narratives. Even a gentle fifteen minute stroll around the block will do you good. This article by Patricica Fry is one of my favourites on walking and the creative headspace.

7. Support Others

You don’t have to believe in the three-fold rule to know the support you offer will be returned to you in kind and abundance. You never know when you might need your own personal cheer squad in the next 30 days.If you have several friends also doing NaNo consider setting up a private Facebook Group  or dedicated Google+ circle as a check in spot, to encourage each other. Those of us who went to Byron Bay this year, have a group set up to support each other through the month.

And on the note of support – put your money where your mouth is and provide financial support to The Office of Letters and Light, the not-for-profit organisation that runs NaNo. You can buy merchandise or make a direct donation and enjoy a halo over your name for the month of November.

Image via Ivysimmeijun’s Blog

Creative Meditation for NaNoWriMo (and beyond)

Thinking: the talking of the soul with itself. (Plato)

Writing has been compared to an iceberg – what we see in print is only a very small fraction of the whole picture. One of the stratas of ice below the water line is what I call ‘the creative headspace’. The ‘thinking’ or ‘medative’ space where plot intrigues unravel, writer’s block dismantles, characters appear, conversations are had and brilliant ideas appear out of nowhere.

Until I heard Nick Earls and Craig Silvey speaking about  ‘thinking in writing’ at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival in 2009, I had never consciously acknowledged this part of my writing – the ‘thinking’ bit. I say consciously, because I was already utilising the time I couldn’t be at the keyboard to contemplate and explore – there was just no conscious appreciation of it or its value to my writing.The ‘thinking time’ I considered to be an artefact of taking up writing  in conjunction with motherhood. I had less time to spend banging my head on a keyboard, because there was much less time to be spent there, full stop. When I got a chance to write, I didn’t want to waste my time staring at the screen with nothing to put down.

So I got savvy.

I wrote in my head in anticipation of time at the keyboard. When I did get a chance to write, I had something of a story to go with.  It was daydreaming, with benefits! Who would ever have thought daydreaming could constitute,  a stitch in time. A thought explored now pays off in unexpected and greatly expanded ways later.

I now refer to this ‘thinking time’ as my creative headspace.

The creative headspace, is like the well of creativity…  it needs regular maintenance. The great thing though, creative headspace is much easier to maintain than the well of creativity – all you have to do is show up. And you don’t have to go any place special or do anything out of the ordinary. There are a multitude of mundane ways to access the creative headspace. Every day chores, things we have to do have an added (and often unacknowledged) bonus: they gain us entry to a medative plane where our minds disengage and are given the freedom to roam.

You probably already know at least two activities which regularly elicit great ideas or creative solutions. I’m regularly heard saying, my creativity intended for my family to be clothed and fed, because the best story ideas often materialise at the washing line or in the kitchen! There is method in the madness.

Some of my favourite creative headspace activities are:

  • Hanging the washing on the line (this seems to be where all the big stuff goes down)
  • Washing the dishes
  • Having a shower
  • Going for a walk
  • Driving (this one continues to scare me because this is one place I shouldn’t be lost in plot intrigues and on autopilot!)
  • Cooking
  • Listening to music

These are all every day activities, known inside out, which require no brain power (except for the driving obviously!) They can also be combined to heighten conductivity (I drive and listen to music, or cook and listen to music – I even shower to music!) You may have a similar list or a vastly different one. Different activities work for different people. It is knowing what works for you, what can be combined and putting it into action every day, in as many ways.

During NaNoWriMo I work hard to maximise the time I spend in my creative head space – because unlike other months, the need to put words down far outstrips the time I would normally have to ponder, explore, discard, retrieve and rework narratives mentally before the process of writing even takes place. Because of this I capitalise on every potential opportunity to let my mind wander. This keeps my narrative fuelled and negates the chances of writers block. It also means for at least one month of the year we have  fully stocked wardrobes of clean clothes and fewer calls for takeaway meals.

What activities help stimulate your creative thinking? Do you consider thinking a productive part of writing? Or are there more important parts a writer should focus on?

Image via Immadreamer.

9 Ways to Prepare for the National Novel Writing Month

I’m interested in creating supportive internal and external environments to facilitate writing during NaNo. To me, writing is the easiest thing about NaNoWriMo – just sitting there and putting the words on the page, because the month of November is no different to any of the other 11 months of the year where I don’t live in a vacuum. None of us are the proverbial boy in a bubble in November (though it would be nice to be sometimes). And as each year goes by the ability to slice off parts of life become less and less doable.

Like me, you have to juggle existing responsibilities and find time to write. You have fears, weaknesses and you get stressed? You may have a family, probably have a job of some description, as well as social commitments. On top of that you also have 1667 words to put down every day.

The good news is, NaNo is lots of fun, is most definitely worth it AND you have ability to anticipate and plan before hand. I strongly recommend taking time out to work out how you can best facilitate November to get to the 50,000 words.

This post outlines nine areas you may have not even considered important to your NaNo campaign – but believe me they are. I suggest you spend an hour over the next few days to answer and explore the questions posed at the end of each section. Team up with some other WriMos – compare answers and share coping strategies

1. Expectations

Our expectations have a great impact on us. Putting them down on paper can be a powerful exercise. It’s also a good place to start to conceptualise NaNo as a real life experience and not a fantastical (good or bad) idea that’s been floating around in your head.

  • What do you expect to get out of your NaNo experience?
  • What do you think will be the easiest part of NaNo?
  • What do you think will be the hardest part of NaNo?

If you’ve participated in NaNo before you might also like to reflect what has been the easiest/hardest part in previous campaigns.

2. Strengths and Weaknesses

Old hands and newbies alike will benefit from taking this inventory (also those not actively involved in preparing for NaNo!) Being able to play to your strengths and negate the impact of your weaknesses is important for any project you involved in – but first you have to know what they are.

  • What are your strengths as a writer?
  • What are your weaknesses as a writer?

If you have participated in NaNo before you might like to focus in on what you love about NaNo and aim to incorporate or focus on that during November. Being reminded you do NaNo because you love writing might be enough to salvage a (perceived) bad day because – well, you’ve been writing!

3. Knowing your habits.

Knowing you habits can help you create an environment most conducive to putting down large amounts of words a day. This includes what stops you from writing as well as what eggs you on.

  • When do you write most efficiently/effectively? (This includes time, location, atmosphere, emotional and mental state and other things like music.)
  • What are your biggest distractions?

You might also be interested in going through previous articles posted here about knowing your process!

4. Creatively Primed – Keeping the well topped up

Different people gestate ideas at a different pace. Some stories come to you quickly, others can take days, weeks, months or even years to brew and mature. Knowing how to maintain your creative energy and a creative space will help to keep your story following no matter what.

November is not the time to come down with a mortal case of writers block.

  • What facilitates/supports nurtures your creative life?
  • What drains/stunts/blocks your creative life?

5. Stress

No one will disagree November presents numerous challenges to each writer and with each of them comes the possibility of stress. Knowing how your stress manifests and how you cope positively and negatively, will enable you to plan ahead to deal with it.

  • What stresses you out?
  • How do you deal with it in positive ways?
  • How do you deal with it in negative ways?
  • What do you think might cause the most stress for you this year?
  • How might you negate it?
  • What helps you to relax?
  • How can you incorporate something relaxing into your every day routine during NaNo? (You may find it is something you can do which support your creative well and keeps the stress at bay!)

6. Time Management – Sharing November

My 1667 words a day have be shared with my parenting duties, maintaining a house, running a publishing house and finding time to be with my partner. For me NaNo is about being super organised – double checking my diary, writing lists so I get everything when I go out, creating menus for a week and only grocery shopping once, falling back on the simple routines which make life easy. In essence I make the most of every minute of every day.

If you isolate a time when you write best, do everything in you power (if it is logistically possible) to write then.

  • How would you break down a normal day – between work, family time, hobbies, community work etc? Where does writing currently fit in?
  • Where are you intending to fit it in?
  • Is there a time best suited to writing?
  • How will you (and those you live with) support this time slot?
  • Is there a fall back time?
  • What little routines can you develop before NaNo begins to support your writing?

7. What’s in you calendar for November?

Few of us can just pack a bag and go to NaNoLand for November. We have jobs, families, friends and other commitments which are no easily put on the back burner. Knowing what else is going on in November will assist you to make it over the line. Obviously not everything can be accounted for (I learnt this when my partner was taken to hospital with a suspected heart attack three days before NaNo finished in 07) but knowing, anticipating and planning will give you some breathing space and negate the worst of the nasty surprises.

  • How many days do you have at your disposal to write in November?
  • Based on your commitments, how many words a day do you need to write to have 50,000 at the end of November?
  • How can you be organised to fit everything you need to do every day?

8. Treat Yourself Kindly

I’m not necessarily keen on the idea of positive reinforcement, but there is something to be said for treating yourself after a job well done. Rather than making it the reason to do it (or the bribe), view it as a way of thanking yourself. Have your milestones and celebrate as you make your way through November.

  • What can you do every day to assist you in making your work count?
  • What will your milestones be? (make them increments rather than the 50K finish line)
  • What treats do you have in mind?

9. Support

While we like to think of ourselves as islands, because writing by nature is a solitary task, we’re actually not islands and we don’t necessarily perform well in isolation. We need support and encouragement – particularly when times get tough. While it is important to have friends who know what you’re going through and came empathise with you, it is also important to have those close to you supporting and encouraging you. After all they are the ones on the coalface when things get weird or when you have to say no to something they might really want you to do.

I make a contract with my family every year because without their support I can’t attempt 50,000 words in 30 days. The first year I promised to make sure the housework was up to date and dinner was on the table every night – and if this happened I could take one whole day off over the weekend. While November was the most organised month in our household, I still wasn’t able to ask for the time I had promised to me on the weekend.

  • What sort of support/help might you need?
  • Where would you find it?
  • How do you ask it?
  • What contracts might you need to make with family and friends for the month of November?

I encourage every writer doing NaNo to find an online or local group to join. For the past two years I’ve enjoyed the support and camaraderie of the Brisbane NaNo group and their weekly Write Ins at Milton, as well as the Write Anything and Brisbane forums on the NaNo website. And well – there’s always twitter and facebook (I belonged to neither when I set out for my first NaNo campaign in ’07 and man, it makes a difference).

At the end of the day, NaNo is about the love of writing. Being prepared gives you the best chance at being able to fully enjoy the experience, so give yourself permission to have fun. Love the words you write, and they will perhaps, love you back!

Picking the Bones of “Cocaine, My Sweetheart”

Aged 15 aboard the slow boat to Fitzroy Island (FNQ), 1989

There are many posts blooming across the internet today discussing the process of writing the stories for the EIGHTY NINE anthology. Mine is no different, because for a small window of time during the creation of each Literary Mix Tape, I get to just be a writer. Like everyone else, I got a randomly assigned song, I had to find an event from ’89 to riff off and I needed it all to be spec-fic.

I can’t remember now if there was any one song I desperately wanted from the playlist. All I remember is wanting to bring ideas I had been exploring, of an alternate personal history, to the page. So for the first time ever, I saw the song as complimentary to existing ideas, rather than as the font, from which my story would spring forth.

When I pulled REM’s “Stand” I thought I was on a winner. I love REM, their songs are always thought or emotion provoking… except in this case. I read the small dissertation about “Stand” on Wiki and died creatively.

Michael Stipe has said of the song’s origin:

…he and the other band members were discussing The Banana Splits, The Archies, The Monkees, and similar ’60s pop groups. “They threw these super bubblegummy songs at me, and I said, ‘I’ll raise you and see you one.’ And I wrote the most inane lyrics that I could possibly write.”

While I interpreted the lyrics of “Stand” to be one of disorientation with the world in which you live (which ended up being perfect for the story) the actual kick start for the story came from one of the other songs – 30 Years in a Bathroom and the idea of a woman communing with the spirit of a dead lover who lives in her bath. It revolved around the idea her guilt held him on that physical plane and facing her guilt would be the only way to free him. Somehow the two ideas combined.

What if my character was convinced she didn’t belong in the time she did, that the dead lover in her bath actually lived and she’d done something to bring about this alternate version of their life. And the crushing weight of that guilt. At that point I had no idea what she had done to create this alternate version.

I knew from the outset I wanted to write my story backwards and I wanted to rise to the challenge set in Dan Powell’s Driver and the Beautiful Highway… to write a story as a collection of vignettes.

The opening vignette was rewritten almost a dozen times before I ditched it. I was fixated on the sound of a dripping tap in a full bath and the rising damp drenching the interior of the linen press, where there were no pipes and the woman’s distress at the paranormal world of the dead lover in the bath leaking into her real world. Exploring the line between madness and sanity. As it turned out, it was the wrong scene, the wrong characters – basically the wrong start.

I sat down to try again, completely from scratch and Rebecca Booker walked into the bathroom and took a sachet of cocaine from the pocket of her shirt and suddenly it all made sense. From there the rest of the story literally poured out, with only one slight alteration, the bedroom scene was originally set in the bathroom, and had nothing at all to do with sex!

I took the running of the Melbourne Cup in 1989 as the pivotal point of existing knowledge, from which everything else spins and disintegrates outward from. And I love the Doug Anthony All Stars and could still sing the entire song they song on Melbourne Cup night ’89 – so it had to have a mention in there as well.

Rebecca Booker isn’t me and Toby Rowlands isn’t the boy I was in love with in Year 10– but there are elements of both of us in both those characters. The beach Bec and Toby bunk off to, the room in which they lose their virginity and the bathroom where it all comes unstuck are real places from my adolescence in Far North Queensland, even the uniforms they wear are authentic to that time period. I also confess to weaving snippets of real conversations and true life events into the story because fact is always more shocking and horrifying than fiction. Hopefully I have done my job well and you won’t be able to ascertain fact from fiction.

While I wrote Cocaine, My Sweetheart to explore a different version of my life (in my head it was never going to be as gritty or messy as it became), it ended up becoming an antidote for the longing of a second chance at a missed opportunity. Cocaine, My Sweetheart reminds me that the possession of knowledge closes doors, rather than opens them.

All EIGHTY NINE stories are free for the next 48 hours at the Literary Mix Tapes site.

Pre-Order the Chinese Whisperings Anthologies

In 2009 we were struck down by the CW Fairy in the creation of The Red Book. In 2010 we found ourselves caught up in an airport, unable to move on during the writing of The Yin and Yang Book. So it almost seems auspicious in 2011 to be delaying our official launch because of an admin glitch putting us into a distribution holding pattern with Amazon.

But… it’s not all bad.

You can pre-order both anthologies now… here. The Red Book retails for $17.99 but we’ve got it at a special pre-launch price of $14.99 (plus p+h) and The Yin and Yang Book for $22.95 (normally $27.95 + p&h). We also promise to drop them in the post as soon as a new official launch date is set – even if this means the books get to you BEFORE the launch.

You’d think I’d be bummed… but it is just par the course for Chinese Whisperings. I can hope when the paperbacks are actually released, so will the CW fairy, the bad airport karma and whatever baggage we’ve accumulated over the past three years, ready to produce new and exciting anthologies next year, sans the publishing headaches.

While we can hope for check in cues which move efficiently in 2012, I know the airport toilets will just never be the same for me. And I doubt I’ll sit in a departures lounge, in the next ten years (maybe even longer), and not spend my time trying to spot characters from YandY. Such is the life at the helm of Chinese Whisperings…