Six In Six

Weedy TypewriterI momentarily crawled out of my sick bed Friday to chase up what I hoped was not a rejection. Alas – another one. And with that it occurred to me I haven’t had a single short story accepted for publication all year. If I’m honest, I haven’t written anything that’s seen the light of day since 2012, given the year I had last year, my focus on longer forms and then this year my unexpected turn back toward shorter forms of the short and realism. It’s enough to sink you down into the deepest mire of despair.

And it did – for about an hour.

I decided to spend the next six weeks writing six new stories, because nothing blows away the cobwebs of submission doom better than new stories for submission (yes, there is a definite hint of masochism to it all that I am well aware of).

Making myself accountable, I went onto Facebook and declared my intention. This is when the surprising thing happened. Someone said they’d join me, then another and another. At the moment there are 11 of us hiding out in a closed group on Facebook ready to put pen to paper.

If you’d like to leak new blood onto the page, feel free to join us. It doesn’t have to be short stories – perhaps you have six chapters that you need to write or edit, six poems that have been aching to be released. I think we’ll be trading war stories on Twitter under #6in6 and on Facebook. If you are not inclined to join us, please feel free to bring your pom poms.

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I’m Not Afraid of my Big Bad Manuscript

…so what the hell’s wrong then?

I have been thinking a lot about fear the last week or so. I’ve been trying to understand why I can’t begin the second draft of my novel. I assumed I was afraid, after all, it’s fear* that usually roots me to the spot and renders me incapable of forward momentum. When I burrowed under ‘fear’ to try and find out exactly what it was that was holding me back, I came up with nothing. (And no, honestly, I wasn’t deluding myself!)

THE ART OF DISSECTION

Confused, I started to look at the problem from a different angle. I know a lot of what I wrote is last November is crap, but I also know there are some awesome gems in there, I know the story absolutely has legs and I know you have to start somewhere. I know the manuscript is riddled with plot holes and half-baked characters but I know with time, research and patience, I’ll work out how to fill the holes and round out the characters. In summation I know its going to require a lot of work to get it up to speed. I also know I have done it before and I will do it again.

BEYOND KEEPING IT SHORT

When I read through Dalhousie, the first thought was: oh shit I’ve done it again. Thrown words at the page in record time and now I have to make sense of it. Just as I did with Elyora. Sheesh, you don’t learn, woman! Six drafts is what it took to get Elyora up to standard. The idea of six drafts of a 80K length novel is absolutely daunting.

The moral of the story, which I pointed out to myself, is: I’m not lacking in a track record or the skills. I did it with Elyora and followed it up with Post Marked:Piper’s Reach. I have no doubts whatsoever the PMPR manuscript got at least six passes over it. Yet it never felt difficult, or arduous or consuming. I always came out of an editing session filled up, rather than emptied out. It came out better for all the rewriting.

So honestly, what the hell is my problem?

NOT DROWNING… MUCH?!

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 7.05.32 PMI’m overwhelmed (not scared) of what awaits me. There’s 79K crappy words and just me to get it tidied into a solid second draft. No one has my back. There will be no kooky Skype sessions. No-one but me will leave humourous or insightful comments in margin bubbles. While I have friends like Rob Cook to assist in untangling things, it’s just me and the manuscript right now.

I want to work smarter, not harder this time. I don’t want to have to do six drafts (but you know, if that’s what it ends up taking, so be it!) For a start, I want to somehow have it all straight in my head when I sit down to do this next draft to expedite the process; understand the characters and their motivations intimately, know how the clockwork mechanisms and the house works. I don’t want any more huge gaping structural holes at the end of this draft.

Consequently I’ve been kind of floundering. And as I’ve floundered I’ve let myself drift into any form of procrastination that will keep me safe from having to front up and sort out the mess. I’ve blamed it on fear, but fear has a new name. It has the correct name: overwhelming.

BEYOND THE NAVEL GAZING

What does this change? I’m still overwhelmed. A novel is big, really bloody big and I might not be able to fix everything right now. But… I can incrementally stick plot holes and characters in my head and mentally masticate them into shape.

Indries Shah’s said: Enlightenment must come little by little – otherwise it would overwhelm. Oh damn, don’t I know it! So I welcome enlightenment to come slowly and I’ll be ready for all it drops.

Then there was the wisdom of a midwife friend almost ten years ago: How do you eat an elephant?

I can take small, mindful bites at the manuscript. Not choke, trying to force more than I can cope with down my throat. I will do what I can, something small every day, until the momentum picks me up, my home life settles and my confidence bolsters. I’ll be the consummate nibbler and know, sooner rather than later, the second draft flow will be upon me, replacing this horrible sense of being buried alive by my own words! Then nothing will stop me.

*Thank you Adam for your article today, prodding me to articulate what was swirling in my head!

Writing Around The Block

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 7.43.27 PMI have an article up at The Writer’s Bloc today, the first non-fiction piece I’ve written in a long time.

Editor, Samantha van Zweden asked me several months ago if I would be interested in writing about collaborative partnerships, given that not many authors did it and I’d been neck deep in them for a while.

I go through a little of what’s good, bad and potentially ugly. And there’s a couple of photos of what it looks like to work collaboratively (it’s all about the feet, hands and random bits of paper!)

Many thanks to Adam and Rus who helped me brain storm the initial dot points and looked over early drafts of it. Thanks also to Stacey who gave me the nod to talk about our work-in-progress.

Have you ever considered a collaborative writing partnership? If not, why not?

Destruct the Distraction

…or how discipline and austerity became my new best friend!

It’s a no brainer: I’m happiest when I am writing and when I have written. My close friend Amanda says she always knows when I’ve been writing—apparently my eyes twinkle!

Yet I allow things to keep me from writing.

CHOKING

I’ve struggled to find the writing mojo this year. Behind the scene I’ve been consumed with family issues—the sort that wring you out and then come back for seconds and thirds. It’s no surprise I haven’t been writing on one level. But once upon a time, writing was the most successful form of escapism I had.

Last year I wanted the whole body, alternate consciousness experience of writing. And I got it—especially with POST MARKED: PIPER’S REACH, but with everything I worked on from ELYORA to  short script adaptations.

I haven’t been able to recreate the same experience or even feel a flutter of the same energy for my current WIP.

THE FIRST PROBLEM

Since the start of February I’ve been trying to work on the first novella in the BYRTHED series (the poorly named, Sylvie’s Story). I started writing it in 2009. I promised I would return to it in 2010, 2011 and again in 2012 (though I at least did some plotting, character development and wrote a short story set in the world last year). I’d liken it to the pointless act of breathing into a long-dead corpse if it weren’t for the success I had last year picking up ‘cold-case’ stories and not just finishing them, but pushing them through to publication.

SYLVIE’S STORY is tough going for a number of reasons. I’ve never had to build a “big world” for a long work. While I continue to believe (as a pantser) the hard yards of world building occur in the second draft, I have to have some idea of the world my characters are traversing. I have some idea of the worlds above and below Rosslin but it has been slow going watching the world unfold through Sylvie, Joseph and Sophie’s eyes.

The process has been amply supported by Rob Cook who has sent through articles on futuristic worlds and he really groks the world I’m trying to write. If not for Rob I may have thrown my hands up in the air and decided it was all too hard. Especially when I realised I had the wrong voice, perspective, tense. Talk about getting it wrong—really wrong!

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH…

I promised I would keep turning up to the page until something happened. I read this inspiring Order to the Chaos of Life by Isabel Allende several weeks ago at Brain Pickings. I’ve steeled myself to the fact it’s hard in the beginning and turning up to the page will eventually provide a breakthrough. A little Dory voice in my head sings: just keeping swimming, swimming, swimming.

Last week I changed the POV and sparked a little momentum but there were so many other more (temporarily) fulfilling things to do…like mop the floor!

THE SECOND PROBLEM

Last week Dr Kim Wilkins publicised a Writing Resilience survey. I opened it, started answering the questions and the full destructive nature of my social media interaction (ie. distraction-cum-interruption) hit me. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter; an incessant (and unnecessary) compulsion to check email is a close second. I’m the consummate creator of interruption and disruption, especially when I’m floundering.

I jokingly said to a friend last week I needed another Rabbit Hole—to be sequestered away with nothing but writing (believe me, the Rabbit Hole gets mighty boring after an hour of not writing).

So I emulated the Rabbit Hole to the best of my ability this morning, coupling the leaving of the house with the leaving behind of my phone: no Twitter, Facebook, email, text messaging—just me, the computer, my manuscript and the old iPod cranking out  time-tested writing tunes.

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AN INTERESTING OBSERVATION

In 2003 I was in my second year of uni and I was the kind of student who made over-achievers look like slackers! Dave and I were shacked up in a two-bedroom townhouse and there was a little bit more money hanging around than there had been the year previous. This meant I could keep a packet of Tim Tams in the fridge downstairs during assessment hot spots. When I hit a tough bit in an essay or prac report, I’d go down, grab one biscuit and usually, that was all it took to unknot my brain and for the words to follow.

This morning I slowly sunk into the opening section of the novella. It took almost half an hour to thump the opening paragraph into submission. As soon as the words refused to comply, when the concepts broadsided me, I reached into the front of my satchel for my phone.

My phone has become my Tim Tams.

The thing is; the Tim Tams were only ever intended as a micro break for headspace. Diving into social media is not that, it is the most insidious type of distraction.

It takes 20-25 minutes to regain pre-interruption focus. Ouch! When I add up the number of times I’m ‘distracted’ or ‘interrupted’ in a single morning, ‘squirrel’ becomes the sound of nails being hammered into the coffin of progress.

HABIT FORMING

21 is the number of days experts say is optimal for habit forming. So for the next 21 days I am committing to one hour of distraction free writing in the morning. This means turning the internet off if I’m home, leaving my phone at home if I am going out, and slowly weaning myself off the ‘phone as safety blanket’. (Just in case you are wondering, I’m not taking up Tim Tams!)

When I finished writing this morning my blood was warm again. True, it had taken longer than the hour I had budgeted for, but at the end I had 948 almost brand new words. Better than that, I just wanted to keep writing (dang that midday appointment!)

The thrill of a story unfolding infused me. And still does.

The novella feels do-able now.

What are your major distractions to writing? How do you deal with them? Especially when writing is tough going?

Interior Monologues in Writing

The internal/interior monologue is possibly one of the least used points of view these days. An internal monologue is something associated more with the soliloquy of the theatre than a stand alone piece of literature.

“Points of View: an Anthology of Short Stories” is published in sections based on point of view.  The editors James Moffet and Kenneth McElheny say an internal monologue is like ‘overhearing someone’s thoughts’. They suggest three different scenarios which facilitate an internal monologue:

  • the narrator is reacting to his immediate surroundings – the monologue tells the story of what is going on.
  • the narrator presents their thoughts as memories – the monologue review past events and connects them with present ones.
  • the narrator’s train of thoughts are neither a record of the present nor a recollection of the past – the monologue is purely a reflection, and in itself, the story.

While few short stories are compromised entirely of a monologue, many writers use this point of view in a limited capacity. Stephen King’s “The Shining” utilises the internal monologue–in tiny snippets, rather than in large slabs–delineated from the rest of the narrative, through the use of brackets.

He closed his eyes and all the old phrases began to parade through his mnd, it seemed there must be hundreds of them.

(creaking up not playing with a full deck lostya marbles guy just went looney tunes he went up and over the hig side went bananas lost his football went crackers nuts half a seabag)

All meaning the same thing: losing your mind.

“No,” he whimpered, hardly aware that he had been reduced to this, whimpering with his eyes shut like a child. “Oh no, God. Please, God no.”

Monologues also appear in the guise of diary entries and letters, which perhaps are more palatable to a reader for large slabs of introspection.

Two stories in Chinese Whisperings: The Red Book are excellent examples of the use of diary entries as monologue pieces. Paul Servini’s uses the diary entry to good effect in his story “Discovery”, juxtaposing the assured, business-like Elizabeth, with her less secure inner self.

What now?

The last ten years of my life have been spent trying to forge a career in business. Yet, it was more than a career at stake. I was looking for an identity after Robin. I found it. The cost was high but I paid it willingly because it made me into someone. I needed that. So I closed my eyes and went for it. Today, someone opened my eyes and I recoiled.

Is this really what I’ve become? And is there any way out?

Jasmine Gallant’s “Not My Name” is told entirely through diary entries. Her narrator’s deteriorating mental condition is expressed in the confusion of the tenses – his memories are told in the present tense and his every day observations in the past tense. He alternates between observing the mundane now and the terrifying past.

I am so cold—huddled at my little desk, pounding on this keyboard— I feel the breath rush out of my lungs, freezing the air in front of me. A coffee sits beside me, its warmth leaks away. A cigarette smokes lazily in the ashtray. Rings drift to the ceiling like a young girl’s hair. Stray books and clothes have a life of their own and come to rest wherever they find space in our small, cramped living room.

Why do I write these things?

These things of no importance?

While internal monologues give us an unparalleled intimate view into a character’s life, thoughts and feelings, it is a fairly limited approach not to mention a biased one.

Interior monologues can also be tough to articulate authentically. Blair Hurley of The Creative Writing Corner, says the challenge with writing interior monologues is two fold:

  • thinking often does not occur in grammatically correct sentences. We don’t think in big words. Our thoughts are often broken and disjointed. Authentic-sounding interior dialogue needs to capture the essence of this, however…
  • if we are too authentic and accurately capture what thought is really like, we end up with an  incomprehensible quagmire of text.

Hurley says for a monologue to be touching and effective it needs balance.

While I wasn’t a great fan of Dorothy Parker’s “But the One on the Right” she does strike a working balance between cohesive expression and the sporadic, randomness of thought. It was just a shame I didn’t really care too much about the situation in which her protagonist finds herself (I’m not one for whinging which forms a fair chunk of the monologue.) Having said that, it comes with an excellent ending and a good example of how one might include direct speech into an interior monologue.

We all like a challenge don’t we?

March’s writing challenge is to spend 10 minutes writing a simple interior monologue. How easy is it to replicate your thoughts or the thoughts of a character in an authentic manner, but also allowing the reader ‘in’? A bit like trying to transpose Shakespeare into text speak?

This blog post first published on the Write Anything website March 1st 2010

On the Eve of Author: With Adam Byatt

Strange things happened out here… like when you and your writing partner find yourselves on the precipice of writing your first full length novel on the same day without actually planning to do so!

We’ve been writing Post Marked: Pipers Reach since the start of January. At the time Adam was preparing his novel and looking forward to taking his long service leave to write. I on the other hand was still sorting myself out. By the time I had myself straightened out and decided to clock off time to write a novel, Adam was well into his planning.

Across the last three weeks we’ve been texting “to do lists” to each other in the morning, keeping each other on track as we both worked to reach a June 1st start date. So I feel charmed to be standing (virtually) with Adam tonight, should to shoulder… equal parts excited and shit-scared…. ready to do it. Really, do it!

Tomorrow we descend into our bat caves of creativity (one in Brisbane and one in Sydney), throw on our “will-be author” capes (mine’s an eye catching red and comes with fingerless gloves attached on strings) and hammer down the highway, word counts ticking over like the speedo on the batmobile.

But before we do, a few words from Adam, after I wet-willied him into submission and he  agreed to answer a few questions on what happens next.

Tell us a little about your novel eagerly waiting in the wings?

This novel was a seed planted about six, maybe seven, years ago. Over the years I have had different ideas as to what form it might take when it broke the surface, from poem to picture book to short story (I have a half finished multimedia novella based on a similar concept to finish at a later date). Now it has germinated into a novel.

In my flash fiction and short stories I explore facets of people’s everyday existence and see how they play out. Even the most “average” of characters has a complexity of life, reflected in multiple shades of colour, not simple black and white. I call this “suburban realism.” It sounds less pretentious and avoids the narcissistic overtones of calling it literary fiction. And I can’t write literary fiction–whatever it’s supposed to look like.

Parallel Lines follows the life of Sarah McDonald and her relationships with her mother, Marie and eldest daughter, Elizabeth. Anxiety and depression plague Sarah’s life, leading to an act of self-harm that leaves her clinging to life. She is found by Elizabeth and it forces her to confront her mental state. Sarah’s decision to enter into a psychiatric hospital at the beginning of the school year has major implications for Elizabeth.

While in hospital Sarah begins a journal, while Elizabeth begins a blog. Each woman chronicles her response to the event and how it impacts on her life. Sarah looks for the answers in the relationship with her mother while Elizabeth wonders if she will replicate the life of her mother, particularly as she is in the final year of high school.

How does mental illness affect a person and their relationship with family and friends? Should it be kept in the private world or can it be shared in the public sphere?

How would you encapsulate each major character in your novel in a single sentence?

Sarah is a 42 year-old mother, an accountant and pianist who understands patterns and systematic order, whose life begins to fall apart when mental illness usurps her understanding of who she is, sending her into a self-destructive cycle.

Elizabeth, Sarah’s 17 year-old daughter in her last year of high school, picks up the pieces dropped by her mother and tries to work out if the picture she is putting together is a reflection of what she will become while attempting to create an understanding of herself.

What preparation have you done prior to writing?

I am a little OCD in some things and the idea of writing a novel without prior planning and a blank page sends my underpants into a state of disrepair. I doubt that those novelists who “pants” their novels haven’t thought long and hard about what they are going to write.

Using Karen Weisner’s book, “First Draft in 30 Days” was my way of constructing a viable narrative. Modifying the activities in Weisner’s plan gave me a strong novel outline to tinker with. It resembles a long rambling essay, without dialogue and description, but it had the key events written out.

I had key points serving as markers for the division of Acts 1, 2 and 3, and built the framework around that. After one version I printed it off, read through it and scribbled notes in the margin of new scenes, fleshing out subplots or tightening the tension for the characters. Add in the new notes and details, print and re-read. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

I needed a road map, directions to follow, so even if my characters take a divergent stroll through a random street, I can bring them back. However, I am prepared to change the story if the tangent makes a stronger narrative.

Will you have a daily word count to keep you on track or do you write until you feel you’ve done enough?

My (idealistic) aim is 3,000 words a day, following the Stephen King model of putting my backside in a chair and not getting out until the word count is reached. I’ve set aside June as the month to complete my novel (taking long service leave to do so). It was not my original plan, but the death of a relative changed the first few weeks of my planning and involved rescheduling. This would mean a novel of 90,000 words, yet it if comes under or goes over, I have no problem with that, although anything less than 75,000 and I’ll feel a little cheated.

Where do you see yourself this time next week? What’s the biggest obstacle you face in the next 10 days?

By this time next week, I hope to have crossed the 20,000 word mark, about the end of Act 1. This weekend I have 3 shows to play (a previous commitment) so that takes a large chunk of the weekend and limits writing time, but I’ll put in what I can.

The biggest obstacle I face is maintaining momentum. And not procrastinating.

After having had this idea in my head for so long, I fear I will not be able to do it justice. I hope the vision I have for this novel will come to pass on the page in front of me.

My interview On the Last Day of Being Something Other Than Writer is here.

Adam is an English teacher and occasional drummer sifting through the ennui, minutiae and detritus of life and cataloguing them as potential story ideas.  They are pretty much a pad of sticky notes on the fridge door. Occasionally he finds loose change. He inhabits twitter as @revhappiness and writes flash fiction and blogs at A Fullness in Brevity

Interviewed Tomorrow

Yes, it’s been a bit quiet around here lately. To make up for it,  Rebecca Blain’s blog On Writing will get a bit loud when she interviews me tomorrow about my professional trident – writing, editing and publishing… and how it all fits together (or doesn’t).  Lucky for her she asked all the questions and I was wearing a skirt so I didn’t need to ask if I could unzip my pants (I’m pretty sure she’s not into ties as well).

There’s a comparison between Chinese Whisperings and Literay Mix Tapes. In addition to all the business stuff, she asks me my opinion on writers and their reading habits (pull out the soap box), how to land the coveted ‘acceptance letter’ and which writer dead or alive I’d like to hang out with. It won’t be who you expect (I dare you to have a guess below).

Like all good Saggittarians – I love to talk, so my interview will stretch across two days to accomodate my lengthy answers – there was a lot of good stuff to talk about. For those who stop in and leave a comment (or a question of their own – and no I won’t unzip my pants!) a chance to win some eBooks. So mosey on over tomorrow and Wednesday.

For now – here’s a sneaky peek at what’s coming up there (as it leads into my next blog post!)

Do you find your ability to work as a writer, editor and publisher suffers at all from trying to do it all?

Yes, and sadly it is my writing which always takes a back seat – either because of tiredness, or lack of inspiration, because I’m just too full up with other people’s stories to find room for my own (last year the Yin and Yang Books was 22 interconnected stories!) or I feel editing and publishing take a higher priority. Editing is a suck on your creative reserve – especially the projects I am involved in, which are very ‘hands on’.

The irony of giving up editing to write, only to find myself back with an editor’s hat firmly on my head is not lost on me.

Image: Interview Questions from Toothpaste for Dinner.