The darkest hour

Today is my last day of leave after taking a couple of months off my day job. Technically I guess I still have the weekend, but Monday will see me up and showered and back in the office at an unconscionable time of day, instead of stretched out on my couch in my pyjamas with my laptop or a book…

I have very conflicted thoughts about what I’ve achieved since the end of January.

I never EVER get as much done on these sabbaticals as I want to.

I don’t have a finished first draft.

In fact, in some ways I’m much further off a first draft, having completely torn apart the first 50,000 words of the first draft I’d previously created.

And it’s a constant struggle to balance out the voices of doubt and self-sabotage with an objective, let alone positive, dialogue with myself about what I have or haven’t achieved. For example, you may notice I haven’t put up any blog posts in the time I’ve had off. Why? Because it feels incredibly dishonest to be be blithely blogging about doing a thing when I’m deeply questioning if I am actually even doing that thing. Have I written enough? Have I spent enough time brainstorming/world-building/deepening character/developing backstory? Do I have what it actually takes to write a novel? I mean, sure, I’ve done it once, but what if it was a fluke?

About the only thing I draw hope from is that SO MANY writers seem to go through exactly this kind of mess, and it seems like the only thing you can do is trust in the process and keep going. “Trust in the process” is a big ask, though, because it’s very difficult to see what there is to trust. Literally all I’ve got is that some of the authors I most admire are honest about passing through this phase of the creative process.

Ugh.

So, partly by way of doing some self validation and partly in the hope this might act as breadcrumbs for someone else wandering around in this horrible, uncertain, formless grey space, here’s some stuff I have done, to balance out the abject lack of completed first draft sitting in my documents folder.

  • Loads of character backstory. Some of my characters have changed dramatically. They’ve deepened, become more interesting and more whole. Some of them were mere ciphers and are now awesome.
  • I have actually written some scenes I am actually pretty happy with, actually.
  • I have nutted out a plot. It’s not completely fleshed out, and my ending is still hellishly hazy. But I have a lot more structure to this story than I previously did. And, TBH, that’s actually the main thing I wanted to achieve with this time off. It’s really easy to downplay the sheer amount of thinking/dreaming/brainstorming time that goes into creating plot (at least for someone like me – I am not a plotter) and one of the reasons I took this time was so I could have just days and days of staring into space and trying out ideas and abandoning them and trying out other ideas… Discarding so many ideas. Oh yeah. *sighs wearily* It’s all part of the process.
  • I’ve made huge headway into my TBR pile. “Wait. What?” I hear you say.* “That’s not writing! Why are you reading when you should be typing words???!” But reading is super important. Especially reading stuff you enjoy and that feeds your muse. When I am all dried up and wrung out and exhausted by my lack of progress and jaded with my lack of creativity and sick to freaking death of my stupid WIP, reading reminds me what I love about stories, and about what kind of story I want to write. Falling in love with other people’s characters and marvelling at other writers’ clever plot twists and getting lost in other authors’ magnificent world-building helps me rekindle those exact sparks in my own work.

So, there you go. Not a lot of wordage. No shiny first draft yet. (In fact, right now, I’ve retreated from the idea of even producing a first draft at this point, and embraced the concept of a zero draft, as outlined in this fab thread from Fonda Lee, author of Jade City)

But in so many respects I’m way further along than I was back in January and starting to fall back in love with my story again, I think.

Just gotta keep trusting in this amorphous thing called The Creative Process and … keep on swimmin’.**

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* When I say “you” I mean “me”.

**And buy lotto tickets. So many lotto tickets.

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Operation First Draft

I’ve taken some time off the day job! Eight whole weeks. Woo! But I’m not having a holiday. Just doing a different kind of work. I want to complete a first draft of one of my WIPs. So this week I’ve been head down, busily writing away.

Monday

Reporting for duty at the National Library of Australia.

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I figured if I treat it like a job and leave the house every day, hole up somewhere quiet (preferably with coffee) and just focus, I’ll be less likely to arrive at the end of  the 8 weeks and find I’ve accidentally constructed my dream vegetable garden or cleaned out the garage instead of finished the novel.

Tuesday

Holed up at Good Brother Cafe with a slice of semolina custard pie.

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Wednesday

At the iconic Tilley’s Devine Cafe.

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Thursday

Back at the National Library writing in the cafe under the light of their glorious stained glass windows.

Friday

Um. Friday was a bit of a yukky day. So I broke out the fluffy slippers and parked myself on the couch. It was still moderately productive and far too wet and windy to make landscaping an attractive alternative to plot-wrangling.

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Progress?

I’ve added around 4000 words to the MS, put the plot in order and stitched up a couple of ugly holes. That’s probably OK for a MS I haven’t looked at for months. My aim is to get myself up to doing at least 2000 words a day. The MS is currently sitting on 41K, and I’m aiming for about 90K.

And what am I writing?

Aha. Spoilers. It’s another standalone and it’s fairy tale related. Maybe I’ll leave some hints lying around here over the next few weeks.

Running writing

running writing

I am not a sporty person. Never was, never will be. I will not bore you with the humiliations galore I suffered through in PE as a kid. Suffice to say that all the leisure activities I have really enjoyed throughout my life have involved cosiness and curling up somewhere with a cup of tea. However, I recognise that exercise plays an important part in keeping our bodies healthy, so I do make an effort. I ride my bike to my day job most days and in the last year or so, I’ve taken up running. Again, I’m not going to bore you with the details of this. But, for some reason, I’ve found that my attempts at improving my fitness through moderately energetic exercise have had a positive impact on my writing – both my creativity and the way I think about the challenges it poses me.

Getting the creative juices flowing

It is a very tried and tested piece of writing advice: if the Muse is stubbornly avoiding you, get away from your keyboard/notepad/dictaphone/etc. Get out of the house and get moving. Walk or run, either works. I often have great ideas or come up with great solutions to tricky plot problems while I’m running. It’s weird, coz it doesn’t happen so often when I’m on my bike. Perhaps because when I’m on my bike I’m either going to or coming from work, so my brain might be more focussed on work issues. But I run in my spare time, when my brain is almost exclusively consumed with writing stuff; maybe that’s why. But it works for me.

Oh the epiphanies I have experienced.

Never when I have a pen.

This stuff ain’t meant to be easy

A thing running has taught me is that it doesn’t get easy. Which is not to say it doesn’t get easier. But easy? Nope. It’s always hard to drag myself off the couch, to get out there into the winter chill, or the summer heat, or the still-dark, early morning streets. Guess what else doesn’t get easy? Setting aside the time and dragging my arse to the chair in the study to do the story work and pound out the wordage. In both cases I have to battle that sense of exhaustion that comes even before you start – just from contemplating the task ahead. In both cases, though, if I push myself, if I make the effort, I always find I can do the thing.

The importance of stretch goals

This is a really interesting thing running has taught me: Set stretch goals. Then (this is the important bit), don’t just sit there looking at them; give them a go.

Because I’m so unathletic, when I decided to try to get into running, I decided to get into it gradually, alternating intervals of running and walking. Going from running in 90 second stretches to a whole 3 minutes was pretty daunting. Then going from 3 minutes to 5 minutes to 8 minutes… Every time I level up, I always wonder if I can actually do it. But every time I actually can, and every time it feels awesome to have challenged myself and found myself up to it.

And I’ve found this applies to writing goals.

There’s something to be said for applying for something like a residency or a competitive grant or a selection-based professional development course even if you’re not sure you’re ready, because if you get in, someone else clearly thought you were. If you only ever apply for this sort of thing when you know you’re good and ready, you’re not pushing yourself. You might be moving forward one step at a time (and setting one-step-at-a-time goals is also very important), but you’re denying yourself the exhilaration and gratification of taking a flying leap forwards. That sense of achievement you get when you’ve really challenged yourself and risen to it. (Note: when I say “you”, feel free to imagine me giving a stern pep talk to myself.)

Measuring your progress

One thing I learned after I had my first story accepted for publication back in 2011 was that I had just stepped onto the bottom rung of a ladder that just goes up and up and up and up. Every time you climb to the next rung, you look up hoping to see the top, or at least hoping you’ve reached the point where you can poke your head through the thick layer of cloud obscuring your vision of the top. It’s hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere when there always seems to be so far to go.

With my running, I find I’m much less about “Will I ever run a marathon?” (perhaps because I can answer that question straight off: No. Zero interest.) My fantasy goal is more about being able to run for a whole half an hour without stopping for walking breaks, and being able to do it every day without feeling like I’ve broken something. But I also find myself able to stop and look back down the ladder at what I’ve achieved so far. A few months ago I thought running for a whole 3 minutes was a challenge. A few weeks ago I ran for 20 minutes without stopping for a break – probably for the first time since I finished high school.

So there’s my last lesson. Stop and look back down the ladder. Admire the view from where you’re at. Bask in the sunshine of your successes.

Here’s a picture of duckies enjoying running. You’re welcome.

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Candy bar scenes

Image by Simon Howden, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Image by Simon Howden, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve been indulging in some candy bar scenes this week. These are typically the scenes you hold off writing, because they’re the fun ones; the ones that signify major plot points or key emotional stepping-stones for your characters. You’re supposed to hang them out in front of you like a reward you get after the rest of the wordage is down.

I find, though, these are also the scenes that help me keep a story on track. They’re the ones that set the character of the whole novel, and the touchstones I keep returning to when I feel like I’m losing my way. Getting a candy bar scene down ahead of time can help me focus on where the bit I’m actually up to in the plot is heading. They’re also the points at which my characters shine brightest – where their personalities and motivations are most clear. So they also keep me focused on how I am developing the people inhabiting my story.

Typically, these are the scenes where my Muse kicks into overdrive, so they are addictive. I tend to find they leave me a bit wrung out, though. And often when I come to incorporating them into the story as a whole (imagine a kind of literary connect-the-dots), I find they are heavy on emotion, but lacking in the kind of world-building depth that really brings a story to life. That’s fine, though. That’s what first drafts are for, after all.

For me, the key issue is balance. If I write all my candy bar scenes all at once, I just end up with a bunch of disjointed, high energy scenes that don’t actually tell a story. I confess, this was pretty much how I approached writing in my teens. I’m not sure if it was the teen thing, or an overdose of candy, but the other problem I experienced with this approach is that what I ended up with was also kind of melodramatic and silly. Also, I ran out of energy to write the bits that knitted the story together as a whole.

But if I just try to slog it out from beginning to middle to end, I get lost in the fog of the present and can’t see where I’m going, or how to get there.

I like to think of it as finding my way by following a kind of trail of candy through the forest of my unwritten draft.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net