On hiatus

A few weeks ago, I finished the second draft of my novel. It was probably the biggest structural edit I’ve done, cutting 20,000 words from the total word count while moving scenes around and fleshing out half-formed subplots. The downside of this is that there are going to be holes throughout it which will probably mean another structural edit before I even get to the line edit and final polish.

This time, I’m determined to let it rest for a decent amount of time so I get some distance and perspective before I dive in again. So I sent it off to my beta readers and await their feedback and reactions with excitement and trepidation. I’m OK with the break (other than the undercurrent of anxiety that comes with the approach of baby #2 and probable disappearance of productivity), but I’m not entirely comfortable with not having a writing project to work on. I don’t want to start on a new novel and get seduced by first draft romanticism (otherwise known as never finishing anything). Plus, no ideas. But I want to remain productive and keep the writing muscle active while I can.

So I decided to try my hand at a short story. Again. I’ve written about this before. You’d think by now I would’ve learnt my lesson. Once again I started with an unformed idea and started writing, and this time I got further than a paragraph. I’ve written three pages. But it still doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. I feel no connection with the characters and I’m already tempted to give up. Rather than write quickly, as I do with a novel first draft, I keep going back and editing, changing happy to glad and back to happy again, which is generally my way of avoiding the fact that it’s not working.

I’ve still got the document open. I still want to write. The story possibly has some potential. I’m just not sure I have the patience to see it through. I’d rather be writing a novel.

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Bootcamp!

No, it wasn’t one of those things where you get yelled at by a muscle-bound exerciseaholic while subjecting your own body to torture. But it was probably just as tiring.

Yesterday I completed the final day of a four day fiction writing bootcamp held by the SA Writers’ Centre. I’d wanted to go ever since I saw it advertised a couple of months ago, but with finances thin I wasn’t sure I could justify the expense. But then, two weeks ago, I was randomly picked to win a $200 workshop voucher, so I didn’t hesitate to book in. And it came at a perfect time considering I’m just embarking on second draft purgatory.

The bootcamp involved two workshops a day for four days covering beginnings, dialogue, voice, imagery, self-editing, ‘irresistible fiction’, characters and point of view.

The first was beginnings with Gay Lynch, which explored some ways to create the perfect first sentence or paragraph for a story. While I am for the most part still happy with my beginning, it’s always useful to look at things from different perspectives. The next workshop for the day was dialogue with Lucy Clark. The content in this workshop was quite basic and seemed to be aimed primarily at beginner level, but again it does help to reinforce existing knowledge.

Saturday began with the voice workshop with Jennifer Mills, which gave us some great tips to give our stories and characters a voice of their own. There were a number of exercises, including writing a scene from the perspective of a different character, writing a scene using only dialogue, then rewriting the same scene from an outside perspective relying on nothing but body language. It was interesting that I initially baulked at these exercises, but doing them gave me a fuller picture of everything that makes up character and story.

Next up was imagery with Lia Weston, which I also really enjoyed. It covered all the different methods we can use to convey mood as well as the physical. It was challenging for me to realise how ingrained cliches still are in my psyche, even though I despise them. The exercises really stretched me as a writer and made me think about how to use more evocative prose.

Sunday began with a self-editing workshop with Patrick Allington. I did enjoy this, but as we were a really large group and we only had three hours, there was only the chance to look at three pieces, the second two of which were rushed through quite quickly. I also found a lot of time was wasted by people debating whether individual words or sentences worked in the piece, which was frustrating enough for me let alone the person who was no doubt hanging out for the expertise of the professional editor in the room! The afternoon session was irresistible fiction with Steve Evans, which I found difficult to focus on, particularly in the afternoon, as it was delivered as a lecture with only a couple of exercises. The day ended with a Q&A with the ever-enthusiastic and lovely Sean Williams, who described his career trajectory and gave us some tips on perseverance and always enjoying the writing process.

Day four was also a highlight for me, with the morning session on characters with Anna Solding. This workshop helped me to get to know my characters better through a range of exercises that I would never normally do when creating a story. I feel like I have a more rounded view of them as people now, which I hope will make them leap off the page once I’ve finished editing.

The final workshop of the bootcamp was point of view with Amy Matthews, and this was another of my favourites. It was packed with exercises, which mostly involved re-writing scenes from my novel from a different point of view. My first reaction to this was that it was a waste of time because I wasn’t going to change the point of view in the novel, but once I’d done them I again found that I knew so much more about the background of the characters and story, which will help with authenticity.

By the time it was all over I was drained and utterly exhausted, but ultimately inspired once again to bring what I’ve learnt to my next draft. It’s always so valuable to meet other writers at all levels, and even to go over old learning with new eyes. I’d love to do something like this again in the future.


The books that have changed me

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time, and what better time to follow through than when I should be editing my manuscript…but let’s not speak of that.

I read a lot and I love a wide variety of books, but there are some that stand out because they’ve changed or influenced me in some way, either as a writer or as a person. They’re the ones I’ve read multiple times, and that have left me with something different with each read. And so, beginning in chronological order…

ImageBlack Beauty by Anna Sewell

This was probably the first book I became obsessed with as a child. I read it over and over again and, in the school holidays, my sister and I would watch the animated movie on repeat all day and then recite the lines across the dining table until our poor parents were driven insane.

This is such a timeless book with its messages of the importance of showing kindness to animals. I was born with a love of animals, but this book inspired in me a lifelong commitment to animal welfare.

This second edition (1898) has the inscription ‘Recommended by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’. I’d love to say it was my original childhood copy, but it was a very special birthday gift from my sister Amy and will always have a place in my bookcase.

ImageThe Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell

Another childhood favourite, I read this entire series cover to cover more times than I could count and well into adulthood.

Yeah, it’s about wild horses that talk to one another, but it’s the first book I can remember reading where I actually appreciated the skill and beauty of the writing. The author had a real knack for evocative prose and the stunning Australian bush setting has stayed with me my whole life. To this day, whenever I see a ghost gum I can’t help imagining the silver shadow of a horse flitting past.

These were also the first books that inspired me to be a writer – in fact, as a teenager I wrote my own saga about wild horses in the Snowy Mountains which all but plagiarised this series.

ImageGreat Expectations by Charles Dickens

I was still fairly young when I read this book. It was my first experience of the Classics, and I must admit I wasn’t expecting much. I thought it would be dull, pretentious and wordy, but by this point I was becoming more interested in writing and I was curious about the successful writers of the past.

From the first page, I was impressed by the colourful characters and the dry, subtle humour. And by the time I got to the end I was blown away by the twists and surprises that I could never have participated.

After reading this book I sought out most of Dickens’s other work and was no less impressed with this master storyteller, but as my introduction to Dickens, Great Expectations remains my favourite of his books.

ImageA Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

This book is special to me for so many reasons. Family sagas are not usually my thing, but this book was recommended to me during my Dickens phase as being quite similar in style, and so I gave it a go.

And Dickensian it is, both in its humour and its contrast between classes and castes and the divide between rich and poor. While there are numerous characters, each is impeccably drawn and has their own individual emotional journey. This book also introduced me to a culture I knew nothing about beyond vindaloo, and it spawned a near obsession with all things Indian. Set in a key period of India’s history in the wake of Gandhi and independence, it also gave me an unexpected interest in politics. Each time I read this book I uncover more gems that I missed on the last reading, which for me is truly the sign of a great book.

But most importantly, A Suitable Boy made me serious about becoming a writer. I’d dabbled in writing on and off over the years, but after reading this book I knew it was what I wanted to do. It inspired my first (adult) full length manuscript, which gave me my first taste of industry affirmation, enough to encourage me to continue even though this one will never be published.

ImageCloudstreet by Tim Winton

This book was a revelation to me. It was the first book I read with such an unorthodox style, and it made me realise that there were ways of writing with brilliance and depth of emotion without using flowery, perfectly-formed prose. It taught me that it’s OK to break rules in writing and storytelling as long is it remains true to the story.

Another family saga (OK, maybe I do have a thing for them), each character, while having their own flaws, experiences the full character arc. I’m a sucker for a redemption story, and every character, no matter how contemptible, finds their redemption in this book.

It is an achingly beautiful story with such a strong sense of place that I could picture every creaking corner of that house and breathe in the dust of the street as I read.

ImageA Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Another Indian book set in a turbulent period in the country’s history, this one tears me apart on every reading.

The story swings unapologetically from the depths of cruelty and injustice to the sweetest, simplest joys of humanity and back again without ever resorting to cheap sentimentality. It is exquisitely painful and wonderfully uplifting to read.

While it is an often-depressing book, it also does a great job of demonstrating that true happiness does not come with wealth, but through families and friendships, and by accepting others for who they are and where they come from.

I can’t say enough about this book – it’s not for the faint hearted, but for me it’s a must-read.


The End

I just finished the first draft of my book. I’d love to say I typed The End, but I didn’t. I’m not sure if anyone actually does that in real life. Plus, it’s not actually, y’know, finished.

When I first started writing, the idea of finishing a manuscript seemed like the pinnacle. And it’s a big achievement, believe me. This is the fourth time I’ve done it, and nothing quite beats the mix of emotions that come with writing that final paragraph. It’s only once you delve deeper that you realise the first draft is just the lump of clay you have to massage and coax into something that resembles a story. Even if it’s a very good first draft, it’s still not finished.

I started MISCONCEPTION (working title thanks to clever husband) immediately in April this year when I was hit with an idea that wouldn’t go away. Halfway through I changed my mind about how I was going to use points of views of my characters, then three quarters of the way through I realised that a big part of the first third of the story was actually back story, and that what was originally going to be the final act was the most important part of the book. Along the way new threads popped into my head which I’ll have to go back and sew into earlier scenes. As a result, my original estimate of 80,000 words blew out to 115,000.

So, yeah. It’s not finished. I’m now faced with the mother of all structural edits, but I’m kind of looking forward to it. Last month I went to GenreCon, a genre writing convention in Brisbane, and as with all writing type events, I came away with one of those ‘duh’ realisations. One of the speakers made a statement that I brushed off as obvious at the time, but over the three days I was in Brisbane, it crept up on me and I realised I’d made that very rookie mistake.

You’ll never learn if you never finish anything.

I have seen two manuscripts through to as close to The End as they can get without the professional editing process that usually comes with a publishing deal, but since then I’ve written one first draft that I still haven’t revisited, plus two others I started and then abandoned, then this. I caught myself thinking about what I was going to write next before it suddenly occurred to me – HANG ON A MINUTE.

So I’m going to give myself two weeks off (if I can wait that long), and then I’m going to read the full thing through and start editing. In a lucky coincidence, I’ve also just applied for an Australian Society of Authors mentorship, which I am crossing my fingers (please please writing gods please) that I am successful in gaining, as this would give me 25 hours of time with an author or professional editor to bring my manuscript to a publishable standard.

And now I shall wander the house aimlessly wondering what the hell I’m going to do with myself for the next two weeks.

FREEBORN OUT


A few updates

It’s been a while since I posted, because…well…I’ve been writing. Writing rather a lot, actually.

I’ve been banging out 1000 words a day, which I haven’t managed since before having a baby. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, I’ve started using Scrivener, writing software that allows you to write in scenes and move those scenes around. Sounds simple. It is. But for the first time I’m able to see my story in a holistic sense rather than as one long, linear document. I see this structure as I’m writing, and I can make notes in each scene to remind myself to go back and fix something earlier on. At the moment I’m not moving scenes around so much, but I’ve found that I seem to have ideas swirling around in my head all the time. My one dimensional, spare first draft is becoming more complex as I write, but the prospect of going back and fixing the beginning is no longer as daunting, because I can switch back and forth between scenes without having to scroll up and down and then find where I was before.

Also, word targets. Another simple tool that is really motivating for people like me, who manage to procrastinate by continuously highlighting what they’ve written in a session to see how many words they’ve done so far. I set myself a word target per session of 1000 words, and as I type, the red bar inches across and eventually turns to green as I reach my target.

The second, and more important, reason is that I’m writing on a topic that’s close to my heart. Four months ago, I was ensconced in a different manuscript, which seemed like it was going well at the time, when I was hit with a new idea. Smashed, more like it. I was forced to abandon the other work immediately and start on this one. The subject matter is difficult, but I’ve never been so driven to write something before. I’m well into the dreaded ‘saggy middle’ now, but I’m more inspired and having more ideas than ever.

PEHeader

My other bit of news is that Parenting Express, an online magazine, has published a blog post I wrote about my experiences of early motherhood back when my boy was only five weeks old. Hard to believe it was almost two years ago already, but it’s amazing how it all comes back when I re-read it!


2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival

A few days ago I returned from the Sydney Writers’ Festival – the first I have attended, and hopefully not the last.

I decided to go to Sydney a couple of months ago when I was moaning to a colleague about how I wished I could go, and when I thought about it later, I realised there was nothing stopping me – I had the leave, and it would give me a great opportunity not only to catch up with my friend Dawn Barker, one of the authors in the festival, but also to meet with my agent, with whom I had only communicated via email.

This was the first time I’ve travelled on my own and the first time I’ve been away from my son for more than a working day, so to say it was exhilarating is an understatement. I got into Sydney on Wednesday afternoon and met up with Dawn for a walk around the harbour in the relentless rain and a glass of pinot in a harbourside bar. I met Dawn back in 2010 when we were on the Hachette Manuscript Development Program together. We’ve kept in touch over email ever since and it was great to catch up again and chat endlessly about books and writing and publishing.

The following morning I headed down to the festival and saw a panel session on writing about pregnancy and motherhood with Monica Dux and Anna Goldsworthy. It was interesting to hear the authors discussing their experiences with writing pregnancy/motherhood memoirs, particularly when Anna Goldsworthy described how some people had responded with ‘oh, another motherhood memoir’, as if it is somehow a less respectable  and acceptable topic than anything else. I like the way these two authors have challenged the traditional touchy-feely stereotypes of motherhood and focused not only on the joys of having children but also the downright shittiness that mothers (and parents in general) can go through on the journey. Humour was also a key element, with Monica Dux’s book including a whole chapter on her fear of ‘doing a poo during labour’, something that’s not generally discussed in polite company but which I can guarantee that every pregnant woman thinks about.

After this session I planned to see Michelle de Kretser, who was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize, and quickly learnt that if you don’t line up early, you miss out. I joined the line just in time to hear that the session was full. Thankfully I had brought along my trusty laptop, so I managed to find a seat in the crowded festival cafe to have a coffee and do some writing before catching up with Dawn for a quick lunch.

Later that afternoon I went to a session on writing painful experiences, one that is relevant to me as my current work in progress has a focus on pregnancy loss. The panel consisted of Dawn talking about her book Fractured, which focuses on postnatal depression and psychosis, Anne Deveson, who wrote a memoir on her son, who had schizophrenia and sadly died several years ago, and Helen Sage, whose memoir describes her experience in caring for her daughter following a near-fatal accident. This was an emotional session as these writers spoke about their experiences in writing about such painful issues. There were many tears in the audience.

After this I met up with Dawn and we had a drink before attending the launch of ‘Me and Rory McBeath’ by Richard Beasley. Ah, the benefits of hanging out with a writer! The book sounded amazing and has now been added to my ever-growing pile of To Be Read.

Dawn and I then spent the evening at the Festival Club, where Julian Morrow and Chris Taylor from the Chaser interviewed a few different authors. This was followed by an amazing reading by Courtney Collins from her Stella Prize shortlisted novel The Burial. Her reading was accompanied by music and images that made the whole experience hypnotic and brought a new element to the words from her beautiful book. There was also a great performance by Kate Miller-Heidke. By this point I had consumed rather more wine and rather less food than I am accustomed to and had already been up several hours past my usual bedtime, so we retired for the evening.

It was an early (and rather groggy) start on Friday morning, as I was meeting my agent, Sophie, at 8.30 at the festival hotel. I was ridiculously nervous about this, which was completely unnecessary as Sophie was lovely. It was great to finally meet her after only being in contact via email for the last year, with the added benefit that I met so many different authors and publishing types while we were chatting. I came away from the meeting feeling positive about my writing and eager to find my own place in the industry.

A beautiful place to sit and write.

After the meeting I went down to the festival again, but the combination of my mild hangover and the appearance of the sun at last killed my motivation to go to more sessions, so I found a table and chair on the wharf and daydreamed and wrote some more. It was a beautiful final morning in Sydney.

In a few hours it was all over and I was on my way to the airport again. Part of me was relieved to be going home, but at the same time I already missed the atmosphere and the sheer indulgence of being around other writers and readers. Festivals like this always inspire me and remind me that this is what I want to do. It makes it easier to return to the computer day after day, bang out more words and build a story that other people will hopefully want to read.

I’ve been home for a few days and while I haven’t had much chance to write since, I keep getting flashes of perfectly-formed prose popping into my head. This rarely happens to me. Ideas usually come to me in images that I struggle for days (weeks, even) to properly articulate. So I’ve been making sure I write down these words before they disappear forever, and they’ve really inspired me to push on with my current book so I can use them!

It was lovely to get home and see my beautiful family again, and have my son give me a hug and say ‘Yay!’ But I can already feel the festival receding in my mind. It’s back to reality again, but I’m trying to hold the image of Sydney Writers’ Festival in my head for as long as possible, as a motivation to just keep writing, writing, writing.


Book review – Fractured by Dawn Barker

FRACTURED_left-195x300I wouldn’t normally post book reviews, but this one affected me quite a lot, and plus, I know the author and want to help get the word out about her book.

I met Dawn Barker in 2010 when we participated in the Hachette/Queensland Writers’ Centre Manuscript Development Program, and it was there that I heard her read an excerpt of her then-unpublished manuscript. We’ve kept in contact since through numerous games of Words With Friends and conversations about our writing pursuits, and it’s been fascinating for me to follow Dawn’s journey as that manuscript was taken from its first beginnings to a polished novel.

Fractured tells the story of Anna and Tony in the early days after having their first baby. As the title suggests, things don’t go as smoothly as they expect.

From the first page of this book, the reader knows that something is very wrong. Fractured is structured around a terrible tragedy that is central to the story, and flips back and forth between the days and weeks that precede the event and the consequences that follow, each chapter leading the reader ever closer to the events of ‘that day’. The story is told from the perspectives of Anna and Tony as well as both of their mothers as each deals with the tragedy in their own way.

Fractured is an unsettling, chilling tale of postnatal depression and psychosis that brings a topic that has long been taboo into our lounge rooms and our consciousness. Mental illness is no longer an affliction that is hidden away, but postnatal depression, which affects a shocking one in seven mothers in Australia, is still rarely spoken of outside of a few token paragraphs in parenting books and websites.

Dawn draws on her experience both as a child and adolescent psychiatrist and as a mother of three young children to tell this story. Reading about Anna’s experiences in those first shaky, isolating and stressful weeks of motherhood was so eerily familiar, it was almost as if the writer had been in my head when I had my baby. If I had any criticism about this book, it would be that there wasn’t much exploration of Anna’s transition from these ‘normal’ feelings through to postnatal depression and then psychosis. But then, this may also be a deliberate device as Anna increasingly loses touch with perspective and reality.

Fractured is not a cheery story. If you like happy-ever-after endings, this is not the book for you. It’s a difficult book to read, particularly if you’re a parent. I felt as if I was holding my breath for half of it and crying for the other half. Nevertheless, I think it’s an important book for raising awareness about mental illness and hopefully removing, or at least easing, the stigma of postnatal depression for those who suffer it.

When someone you know becomes a new mother, don’t just offer to bring her food or do the dishes*. Ask her if she’s OK. Ask her how she’s really feeling and encourage her to talk about it. You never know whether you might be opening the door to healing or, perhaps, helping to prevent something terrible from happening.

*Still offer these things. She will love you for it.

Dawn’s website
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