Tag Archives: Writing

In time, out of time and time out

Thanks to the filtering powers of Twitter, I enjoyed this post-Sydney Writers’ Festival piece from YA author Claire Zorn, as published in Overland recently.

I’d have responded to it earlier but … hey, not enough hours in the day and all that. I mean, as a parent, husband, author, freelancer, blogger, Twitterer, school councillor, cyclist, reader, writing workshopper… sigh. As someone wearing many hats, there’s a constant babble of demands, some more discretionary than others.

Ms Zorn reports on a SWF session entitled ‘Can Literature Survive the Digital Age?’, during which author Cate Kennedy re-spun the question as ‘Can writers survive the digital age despite all the tweeting distractions?’

It’s a valid question. I started blogging to promote my first book, then tweeting (initially) to plug my blog. Now Twitter helps me streamline my web-surfing. Rather than checking a long list of blogs and news sites, I can visit the big tree, see who is tweeting what, enter into the banter or move on. It’s a great way to ‘meet’ and interact with other authors, readers, reviewers and more.

So it can be a time-saver. But it can be a time-waster and, as it throbs with fresh tweets, a procrastinator’s worst enemy.

Ms Kennedy fleshes out her argument in Overland, suggesting that the constant distractions of social media such as Twitter and Facebook are an author’s enemy. She says the ideal mental state for writing involves welcoming emptiness and solitude and mastering your own restless boredom.

She’s right. It’s a constant battle for me. While it’s reassuring to know that other authors are struggling with edits, plot twists and finances (via Twitter, status updates and more,) my writing works best in silence.

I finished Game as Ned in a room above a friend’s garage without Internet, email or any distractions (apart from a table laden with Thomas the Tank Engine toys). Much of Five Parts Dead was written in another friend’s spare room, also disconnected from the wireless world.

I work better when I’ve had time to distance myself from the babble, savour the silence and let ideas grow. This is why I’m envious of the musician Bon Iver, who apparently went into the wilderness to heal himself and returned with an album that has won a cult following.

It’s also why my novels both germinated in periods of stillness and/or solitude – a summer landscaping at a Mt Macedon garden and a holiday at a remote lighthouse. Time slows down. The senses numbed by daily life are revitalised.

As I turn my mind back to Book 3, I’ll be seeking that silence once again.

Incidentally, Ms Zorn mentions catching a SWF session with author/cartoonist Josh Neufeld. Wish I’d got to that one. Mr Neufeld’s non-fiction comic A.D: New Orleans After the Deluge is a powerful, multimedia experience online. It hooked me, big-time and shows what a force cartooning can be.

Build your own universe

One of the questions I’m often asked when visiting schools is ‘why I like writing so much’. Well, writing gives me a chance to inhabit my imagination. What’s so good about that? Think of a world where you get to make all the rules. Everything that happens does because you make it so. Need an example?

About a year ago the Little Monkey, now 5, decided she wanted a baby sister or brother. When it became clear her parents weren’t going to fold on this particular demand, she created her own junior sibling. A baby doll became Annabelle, her infant sister.

Annabelle was treated as a normal baby insofar as eating, sleeping, dressing, car travel and other activities went. Just what I needed – a 4 yo telling me her baby sister wasn’t properly restrained in the car seat. Anyway, I played along… until I was informed I had to take Annabelle to creche.

Toys were not supposed to go to creche but that wasn’t a problem as far as the Little Monkey was concerned. In Daughter #1’s eyes, Daughter #2 (Annabelle) wasn’t a toy but a human. Indeed, Daughter #1 had already packed a backpack for Annabelle with spare nappies, clothes, bottle and so on. As far as she was concerned, Annabelle would be treated just the same as she was.

I needed to find an out clause.

I entered the imaginary world, placed my wrist to Annabelle’s forehead and said, “Oh, no Annabelle has a temperature! She’s not allowed to go to creche with a temperature in case all the other babies get sick.”

Pregnant pause.

Then Daughter #1 volleyed with, “She’s only a little bit sick. She’s OK to go to childcare.”

So I persisted with the illness angle, saying it would be better if Annabelle came to the office with me. Daughter #1 insisted that they had medicine at creche and Annabelle would be fine.

It was time to assert myself. End the debate.

“Sorry, Annabelle is way too sick to go to creche. She’ll have to come to the office with me.”

To which Daughter #1 stomped her foot, burst into tears and said: “But Daddy, you’re just pretending she’s sick!”

That’s the magic of imagination. You can choose what to believe and what to overlook. The universe is yours to manipulate.

When you write, you take a snapshot of that universe and describe it so others can share the vision.

It ain’t all fun

If anyone ever tells you that writing a novel is easy then:

a) they have a very good ghost writer; or
b) they have a rubbish publisher and therefore poor editors; or
c) they’re a prodigy; or
d) they’re a liar.

A), B) and D) are far more likely than C). The truth is, it isn’t easy.

It is a solitary occupation, which rules many folks out. Personally, I kind of like the quiet.

It requires determination and discipline. Distractions are plentiful, as Catherine Deveny recently noted. If you work from home and tend towards a neat freak personality, you’re really going to have a battle on your hands. “Do I sweep down the cobwebs above the TV cabinet or try and write that intro I’ve been procrastinating on for a month… OK, so the cobwebs are down now but the dishwasher still needs emptying…” By the time you crank up the laptop and re-read what you last wrote, it’s time to cook dinner or collect the kids or both.

Being a novelist requires a resilient ego. You need to be bold enough to risk putting your work into the public domain, yet malleable enough to deal with rigorous editing, meagre sales figures and critical flagellation. While you’ll have times when you revel in a sentence that sings, I guarantee there’ll be periods when you despair whether you can write at all. And that’s without picking up book written by someone else and collapsing into an inferiority funk. Comparing your work/career with another author’s – and caring how you measure up – is a recipe for insanity.

You’ll need an eye for detail. If you write using the same phrases, descriptions, adjectives and verbs over and over, you’ll get panned. If you overuse adverbs, the same applies (although commercial success is still possible). There are websites that delight in dissecting books to reveal such failings. Poor research is another minefield.

A good editor will assist with these issues but you can help yourself. Read your work aloud. Listen for words that pop up too often, unrealistic dialogue and sentences that tie your tongue in knots.

Read and re-read. Write and re-write.

Chances are, you’re unlikely to ever feel your work is finished and perfect.

Indeed, you can’t be smitten with your own work. In all probability the passage you are fondest of will be first to fall under the editor’s scalpel. If you’re trying to be funny, you may be in for a shock. What’s funny to one set of eyes isn’t necessarily to another.

I’ve worked as a newspaper journalist so I’m somewhat hardened to being edited. I work as a website editor so I’m accustomed to rewriting contributors’ copy. But when it’s your own work you’re editing it’s much harder.

I’m working on what I consider the 8th version of my current novel and there will be further redrafting required. It took me four days to read it aloud and note changes required, and several more days to take in my own edits. I still managed to miss bits or mess them up and introduce new errors. Writing really can be Sisyphean in the demands it makes of you.

So why do we do it? Because it can be intoxicating and seductive. And if you get the stone to the top of the mountain, there’s a chance that someone will read it and like what you do.

Here’s YA phenomenon Maureen Johnson, courtesy of the vlogbrothers, sharing some other home truths on writing as a profession:

Cycling is like writing

Like many other bleary-eyed fans, I’m suffering from Tour Fatigue (throw in a head cold, too). The riders have covered more than 3500 km in the past three weeks and I feel a bit like I’ve ridden with them. That’s the price to pay for the best soap opera on television.

The Tour de France delivers new twists every single day. Key characters plot and conquer or toil without reward. Fates conspire. New heroes and villains emerge. You share the ecstasies of dreams attained and agonies of dreams combusting. It’s well worth sacrificing a few week’s sleep.

Two weekends ago I jumped back on the road bike for my first serious ride in almost two months. It was very cold. My expectations were very low.

Much to my surprise, I had a great morning in the saddle. I led our bunch for at last half the 70km training ride and outpaced blokes usually much fitter than me. It was a ride to remember.

However, I won’t be making any assumptions about the next hit-out. Cycling is a a sport where, in spite of all your preparation, you can have a bad day and suffer, big time. Indeed, we witness it in the Tour annually when tough athletes are betrayed by their own bodies (or minds) and ambitions swoop away for another season.

Just as I’ve had terrible days in the saddle when the wind was in my face and every pedal stroke hurt, I’ve had days at the computer when the words won’t sing and every key stroke is a struggle. When, for all my determination, I’m pretty sure what I’m writing is rubbish.

I might pause for a cuppa but, just as I need to keep pedalling into a headwind, I have to toil on. You don’t get fit talking about exercise. And, as the uber-successful Jodi Picoult says, you can’t edit a blank page.