The pitfalls of deadlines

Having a deadline is a great incentive to get things done, particularly at work. But for people like me, for whom procrastination is an art form, they can be dangerous too. I work so well to a deadline that not only do I leave things until the day they’re due, but sometimes until the final hours, or even minutes. I recently wrote about 80 per cent of a speech in 20 minutes after vacillating over it for an entire day.

I do some of my best work under extreme pressure, but it tends to give me a few grey hairs here and there too. But the real problem for me is setting personal deadlines when I don’t have others relying on me to get it done. My first novel took me around three years to finish, and other than submit it to a couple of competitions and a couple of publishers, it’s still sitting on my computer going nowhere. I’m contemplating whether to continue submitting it to publishers or find an agent (apparently just as difficult as finding a publisher), and not actually doing either.

And now I’m on the second draft of my second novel, and I’m dragging my feet. As I’ve mentioned previously, I wrote the first draft in two months and had really hoped I’d be able to keep the momentum going. And while it’s not going too badly, it’s not too great either.

An added problem is that I do have a deadline for this one. I’m intending to submit it to the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program competition, for which the prize is an intensive retreat with editors from a publishing house. They want strong commercial fiction, and my story is right up that alley. All I have to submit for the first round is the first 50 pages and a synopsis by mid July. Easy, you might say.

It would have been easy had I gone back to those first 50 pages a fortnight or so ago. But it seemed that I had all the time in the world, so in the meantime I’ve been pushing on with the story, fixing up my plot lines at a snail’s pace. I don’t have a synopsis, other than a working synopsis that I haven’t updated since before I started on the first draft. And synopses are incredibly difficult to write (especially when you still haven’t quite worked out how you’re going to tie up all those improbable subplots).

The other issue is that, should I be so lucky as to be long-listed for the program – and I have to be optimistic, right? – I’ll be expected to submit a full copy of the manuscript in mid August. And I’m only halfway through that.

So what do I focus on first? Do I try to hammer through the whole draft in the next 2-3 weeks to make sure I’ve got the story right in case I am long-listed? Or do I concentrate on honing those first 50 pages to utter perfection to make sure I have the best possible chance of getting through to the next round?

As difficult as the process is, I know if I’m lucky enough to win a spot on this retreat, I’ve got a real chance of developing a strong, marketable manuscript. If I can get it right, it has the potential to not only be published, but become a series.

The real burning question here is, why am I wasting time writing a blog post when I should be working on either of the above options?

Horse people are f#@%ing crazy

That’s what was going through my head earlier this evening as I squelched up the muddy hill of my horse’s paddock. My hands were already numb, the wind was cutting through to my bones, and the temperature gauge in my car told me it was 7.5 degrees at 5.15 pm. It was Monday, I was tired and if I hadn’t driven so far to get there I would have been tempted to turn around and drive home again.

It’s these moments that I wonder what the hell I’m even doing this for. It’s expensive, it’s time consuming and sometimes I don’t even enjoy it that much.

But then my horse, Buzz, walked up to meet me and reached out his nose to breathe in my face. His eyes were soft, his ears were pricked and that sweet, warm smell that only a horse person could love filled my nostrils, and a smile crept across my face. I knew then, as I know every time, that I ride because to not ride would be like trying not to breathe.

Horse and human is one of the oldest – and most unlikely – partnerships. Predator and prey animal were never meant to work together as a team, and that much was apparent as soon as Buzz and I first came together seven years ago.

It’s been a difficult road for for the two of us. He was young, with very little training, and I was still getting over losing my last horse. We didn’t always get along – in fact, we didn’t even really like each other that much. He was difficult to catch, flighty, opinionated, and not the slightest bit connected to me. He was a constant reminder that I wasn’t quite the horsewoman I’d imagined myself to be.

When he bucked me off one day I decided that was it: I was going to sell him and find a more suitable equine partner. But something stopped me from going through with it. Maybe I didn’t want to give up, or maybe I sensed there was more ahead in our journey. I had him seen by a chiropractor and discovered that his pelvis and all his ribs were out. The poor thing had been quietly putting up with the pain for god knows how long, until he couldn’t stand it anymore.

That was a turning point in our relationship, and with slow, careful training, we started to build a connection. It took a long time for us to trust one another, but once we did, we went ahead in leaps and bounds.

We started dressage training, and now I’m doing things with him that I never would have thought possible five years ago. He’s so tuned into me that sometimes I only have to think something and he’s already doing it. He’s become the horse I always wanted. We’re doing half passes and training for flying changes and I’m loving every minute of it. Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself that I’m living the dream I’ve had since I was a little girl: I’m dancing with my horse, and we’re doing it together, as partners.

Tonight’s ride wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was pretty damn good. It was cold, but it was a beautiful, clear night, still and peaceful.

As I walked back from the paddock to the sound of Buzz’s hooves drumming as he galloped back up the hill to his paddock mates, I looked up into the sky covered with a carpet of stars more dazzling than you’ll ever see down on the plains, and I felt content. I know how lucky I am to have this in my life. The Adelaide Hills are my place of peace, and my horse is my sanity.

I know I’ll be back to do it again in a couple of days.

On having too many commitments

For someone with a fairly strong lazy streak, I tend to pack a lot into my life.

This morning, for instance, I’m forcing myself to do some more editing on my manuscript in between coffee and breakfast, but there are a lot of other competing requirements.

My dog, Jedi, is bouncing around the house turning himself inside out with the sheer effort of letting me know just how important is it that he goes for a walk as soon as possible.

I should probably unstack the dishwasher before the dirty dishes start breeding and taking over the kitchen bench.

I should probably take some time to relax with my husband, George, after a long week of work.

I need to keep up with my exercise, because as much as it’s a pain in the proverbial to do it, I always feel better afterwards.

We have very little fresh food left in the house, so we’ll need to buy some fruit and veg sometime if we want to avoid scurvy.

I need to bring some firewood in so we can actually have fires at night without risking pulling out spider-infested logs in the dark.

At some stage I want to pull the bed out and vacuum underneath it, since there’s six years’ worth of dust and animal hair built up. (But actually, I’m kind of scared of what I might find under there)

I want to actually do something with the garden while the weather is still good and before the winter weeds take over.

And all this time, the clock is ticking down to 12.30 when I have to go and ride my horse, which again I always enjoy. But I’ll get home as the sun’s going down and I’ll be cold and tired and then I’ll have to get in the shower and get ready to go out for dinner with friends. Which I don’t begrudge, but suddenly the weekend is looking horribly short.

Is it any wonder I find it so difficult to get any editing/writing done? At the least, I have moved past a block I was having with my plot and am once again progressing, however slowly that might be.

Through all this, my cat is sitting next to me, purring away, with nothing more on his agenda for the day but sleep, sleep and more sleep.

So which of us is really the intelligent species here?

Every author who wants to be published must have a blog

That’s what they say, and far be it from me to argue with the ubiquitous ‘they’. Hence I have started this blog to talk about my writing. Because when your full time job almost entirely involves writing, and when you grab random, hard-earned moments of spare time for creative writing, a blog about writing (which by definition entails writing) is exactly what you need. Ah, yeah…

I’d like to think that I’ll post regularly on this blog, but given my slow progress with my current novel, I won’t commit to anything right now. You see, I’m currently working on the Dreaded Second Draft. Otherwise known as Second Draft Purgatory, where you go through that piece of writing that you thought was a masterpiece laden with wit and brilliance when you wrote it last year, and then you discover that it is in fact a pile of shit. So what I’m doing now is not so much writing as it is deleting, re-writing and swearing incessantly.

I dream of a life of Perfect First Drafts, where the plot is always sound, the characters are always heroes (or villains, or at least believable) and the imagery is always evocative. Because I love writing – I love the feeling of words flowing from my mind to my fingers to the screen; I love the burst of adrenaline it gives me, whether I’m writing a novel or a communications plan; and I love how my characters become so real to me that I mourn them like lost friends when the story comes to an end.

By contrast, second drafts are a hard slog where you’re forced to face up to the improbable plot lines you thought you could get away with, poor character motivations and whole scenes where you tell rather than show. It’s hard, and it’s demoralising, and you have to cut sentences, or scenes, or even characters that you just KNOW are brilliant in order to save the plot.

But in the end it’s always worth it, because you become even more intimate with your story, and over time it becomes everything you’d hoped it would be when you wrote the first sentence – even if you ended up deleting that first sentence.

This blog will be about my writing joys and miseries, but it won’t be exclusively about my writing, because if it was, every entry would be something like:

‘Got up at 5am to write. Had coffee, didn’t get much done. Love Rebecca.’

So I suspect I’ll also be talking about the other things in my life, like horse riding, cooking, eating, drinking, and stuff that gives me the shits. And hopefully I won’t be spending more time crafting these posts than I do working on my novel.