A Changing Season

If I were an artist I’d love to sketch a comic to describe a small part of how I feel. Bereft of all skill with a pencil, I must ‘use my words’.

As soon as I left the elevator I could hear it. Behind the closed door across the hallway there was heavy breathing. No, not just breathing: a multitude of heavy grunting noises, and the occasional tired sigh. It made me of the effort involved in squeezing into jeans three sizes too small. It was the sound of simultaneous exasperation and desperation.

I approached the wooden door cautiously, expecting it to spring outwards at any moment. As I edged closer I imagined I could see the door bowing in the centre. Surely it was just my imagination? As though in answer to my query the door creaked as though under great stress. The bolt holding the door shut stood firm, for now.

I looked around and could see no in the hallway. A dozen questions filled my mind. Who was in the room? Why had they been locked in? And by whom?

“Hello?” I called, unsure if I would be heard over the grunts. The noise didn’t change. To my ears it lacked the quality of ferociousness. Someone, or something, was trapped.

As a boy, I’d been trapped in a dark, strange place and I hadn’t liked it. I remembered the feeling well, now decades later. Tentatively my hand reached up to the bolt. The outward pressure being applied made it hard work but with great effort I managed to slide it across.

I was ready when it released, and leapt backwards as the door flung open.

Inside was the pitiful display of an elephant crammed into a space too small for it. The elephant could barely move more than blink is eyes, and even as I watched it moved it’s trunk into the hallway with a look of relief at a momentary chance to stretch, even a little bit.

The elephant was well and truly in the room, and no one – even attempting to enter the room could ignore its presence.

Acknowledging the Presence

The elephant in the room is I haven’t written in a while.

I had planned to be revising The Rebel Queen. Well, that’s not happening at all at the moment. Nor am I working on any of the other projects which I had previously been so excited about.

Why am I not writing? I’m not sure to be honest. You could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps I’m in a funk because I’m yet to hear about my submission of Vengeance Will Come. That’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s not true in this case. Even before I submitted a disquiet inside of me was growing.

Something which has haunted me for quite a while were the examples of (the late) Keith Green, musical extraordinaire and Francine Rivers, the successful Christian author. Both of them, at different points in their faith were called to give up their craft (music and writing) for a significant point of time. They had to make sure they were doing ‘it’ for God, and not for their own glory. Their example has always haunted me. Would I be willing to give up my writing? Would I be able to? I could never answer that question. Maybe this is my own season of putting it down – or at least – refocusing it?

I’ve also been feeling more convicted that my time should be spent on things of the eternal – things that will last – not the temporal.

The truth is I’m not sure quite what is happening, but for this season in my life writing is taking a back seat to other priorities. I’m putting more effort into relationships and building up the men’s ministry at my church.

So what have I been doing?

I’ve also been reading a lot. I’ve got more books on the go — too many — at the moment. I’m re-reading Keith Green’s autobiography No Compromise and Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn. I’m also reading How to Build a Life-Changing Men’s Ministry by Steve Sonderman and Living Water by Brother Yun. I had also started (and understandably put-down-for-now) The Book that Made Your World by Vishal Mangalwadi, The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan and SPQR by Maggie Beard. All this from someone who normally reads one book at a time!

My (lesser) free time has been spent programming.

Will I be Writing?

I’m sure I’ll be writing something. Probably a lot more faith-related material. I might even write some non-fiction, but likely that it will be much smaller size. Writing something smaller takes a lot less time than writing or revising an entire novel.

What does it mean for this blog?

I think it will continue (at this stage). It will broaden: I’ll write about more topics than writing; probably much more on faith and other things which I am passionate about. It probably won’t be every week (as has been my normal rate). Right now, it’s hard to say – because everything feels up in the air.

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Staying Motivated

I’ve had a few late nights recently and my brain insists on early mornings, regardless.

I sat at the computer late yesterday afternoon – a rare occasion where I get time to write on a Sunday. After a while I decided I couldn’t be bothered, my brain was just too tired to be engaged in what I was doing.

Reluctantly I decided I should go for a walk. Reluctant because of guilt (of not writing) and also  the idea of going outside wasn’t enticing. The sun was beating down and there wasn’t a breath of breeze, hardly good walking weather. I started towards the creek before I realized it was ideal snake weather with the grass a yellow-brown camouflage.

Then I started to think about my story Vengeance Will Come. I wasn’t thinking about my current editing position but rather about the whole story, and even more how the story fitted into the planned series.

That thought re-ignited my writing momentum: I want to finish the story so that others can enjoy it. An incomplete story is an adventure that never happened, a wasted opportunity. I want to share my adventures with you.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

(This is very loosely based on the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 16, with a lot of additional rambling and ad lib).

How to overcome writer’s block, you ask… Stop reading this and go do some writing. (I’m almost serious, but I’ve put some effort into this post…so why not take a few minutes to read it and then get writing 🙂 ).

There are two schools of thought around curing writer’s block and they are helpfully contradictory. It’s as simple as just forcing yourself to write or, you can go the other way and just don’t try to write.

Step 1: Accept Reality

You want to be a professional writer, right? So that means that you have to produce. Just the same as a farmer, a cubical monkey or a factory-line worker you don’t get paid for staying in bed. Nor would a baker make any dough without being up early (ouch, bad pun). The early bird feasts on the juicy worm; the sluggard bird gets nothing.

The reality is that you do have to produce. Just because you don’t feel like it (emotion) or you don’t feel you can do it (also emotion) doesn’t mean you can be successful not doing it. Publisher’s want authors they can rely on to regularly churn out product, not one-hit wonders. You must produce.

Step 2: What’s the Problem, doc?

Be your own doctor. No, that doesn’t mean to self-medicate; that’s not going to help anyone.

You need to diagnose the cause of this malaise which is preventing you from writing. In order to fix or work-around the issue, you need to know what it is. From my own experience I have encountered the following:

  • a plot problem which essentially “breaks” the story, or I don’t know where it is going.
  • feelings of discouragement in overall ability, or the quality of the current work.
  • exhaustion
  • preoccupation with other things

Step 3: Cure

A Plot problem. The first stage of AA, and Writer’s Block is to admit the problem. It can be painful to admit that this baby you have been gestating for months has some serious flaws. Diagnose the problems fully. Write them down, be specific and pull no punches. Thinking it through in your head is not enough; write it down.

Then brain storm possible solutions. Throw up a dozen ideas, even if you instantly discard ten. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of each solution. Normally I’ll have to throw up about fifteen options before I hit upon the right one. Most often it is the right combination of solutions which comes out the strongest.

Discouragement. Discouragement, friend of mine. Discouragement is nothing unusual to the writer. Like your own personal Flanders (aka annoying neighbour) it will come a round. Even seasoned, acclaimed writer’s continually struggle with feelings of inadequacy and foreboding failure.

When this enemy comes knocking on my door the best fortification is to go bolster the defences. I do this by reading some of my past “success” stories (published, or not), and the positive feedback which I hang onto (for moment such as this). I am a decent writer, and any setback I have is temporary and does not define me.

It also helps to remember:

  • a literary masterpiece doesn’t come out of a first draft. A gem is honed and cut, not pulled jewellery-ready from the ground.
  • writing well isn’t easy; don’t expect it to be.

Exhaustion. Who would have thought that sitting at a keyboard for hours at a time can be truly exhausting? Especially when trying to meet deadlines it doesn’t take long to completely drain the batteries of more than just your laptop.

Allow yourself a break, between ten minutes and an hour. Go get some sunshine, people watch, call a friend or drop around for a coffee. It’s about changing your setting, giving yourself a small break from the requirement to write.

I’d advise not checking email, youtube, news websites or playing computer games. You want to refresh your mind, not put it to sleep.

Pre-occupation. Humans are complex beings. Sometimes we have pesky things like relationships, occupations or responsibilities that fall outside of the realms of our latest novel.

Sometimes we have to deal with other things, and there is no way to put them off. It is better to focus on those other tasks, get them done efficiently and go back to writing than to try doing both things inefficiently.

Step 4: Prime (as required)

If you’re still not ready to write then start doing things that will prime your writing engine.

  • Read what you wrote yesterday
  • Just write – even if what you write isn’t any good, at least you are writing (which is better than not). Write yourself into a scene or character.
  • If you absolutely cannot write, are there other tasks you can do that are still productive? (It is better to be productive in research or editing than to give up and play a computer game!)

Prevention, better than a cure

Learn your rhythm. Understand when you are most productive and what things impede your effectiveness. As I wrote in Writing-Life Balance, I am most productive in the mornings, so where possible I need to set aside the morning for writing and leave other tasks until later in the day.

Understand your motivation. This is a big one. Why do you write? A good motivation will keep your literary engine running. Are you writing so that others can experience the adventures that you must write about?

Schedule pressure. Some people are hard-wired to respond better under pressure. Set yourself deadlines. And if you miss a deadline, adjust the following deadlines – don’t just say “well I missed that, so whenever is good enough.” Make yourself a goal, and plan a reward that you will only receive if you meet the goal (and/or punishment).

Keeping it in Perspective

So I’ve finally finished the first-or-second draft of Vengeance Will Come, my first foray into novel-length writing. Having achieved such a long-term goal you’d think I would be ecstatic.

But no, I’m feeling somewhat the opposite emotion. (* My initial elation was probably more just I’m-escaping-from-this-room and getting fresh air feeling after a mammoth writing session).

Let me explain how I am feeling using another real-life example. When I was in junior school I made my mum a clay “bowl” in Art class. I say “bowl” but really that is far too generous – it was more of a “thing”. I’ve never been skilled with my hands and this was  perfect evidence of that fact. Showing true ingenuity (or perhaps fear) I decided not to use the spinning wheel to craft my masterpiece, instead taking coin-sized pieces of clay and pinching it together. I could lie and say it looked like something cool from antiquity but the truth is not so grand. It looked like something you might expect a near-sighted, half-paralysed, drunk chimpanzee to slap together in under three seconds. It was such a masterpiece that it could not endure the rigours of a kiln and so was never baked.

(I just googled “really bad clay bowls” and everything returned was far better than mine). It was bad. What my mum should have done is said ‘thank you’ when I gave it to her as a gift and then let it migrate to the rubbish after a respectful length of time. But no – characteristically mother-like – my dear mum kept this artefact for decades. Every time I saw it I couldn’t help but be embarrassed by it. She of course loved it, but that’s just plain motherly bias.

That’s kind of how I feel about my novel. It seems to be me more like papier-mache than novel. I can see some of the errors and I know there are dozens more that I don’t even recognise as errors yet. I have written several times on this blog that my first novel will not be perfect… intellectually I know this; but it is still hard to accept that fact.

I’ve thought about locking it away never to see the light of day, but I need to keep it in perspective:

Don’t compare your first draft to their published draft. They are apples and oranges.

This is my first draft of my first book. There are a lot of things I have learned along the way and there are many things that I know I have done wrong. To be honest, I will probably make the same mistakes again until I make them often enough to realise I am making them.

Soon I will be asking for a few brave alpha readers. Even if this story is never published, I still think the value of going through a broader review and rewrite will be a valuable exercise. (Note that I will only be doing one rewrite because I don’t want to get stuck in an endless cycle of rewrites).

If you are interested in providing some constructive criticism please post a comment or email me at the address below. unnamedDo you have any questions about writing? Ask and I’ll give it a crack.

Get Serious About Writing

The other day a friend (and dare I say it, a much more skilful aspiring author) generously and thoughtfully gave me a gift out-of-the-blue.

Fiona McIntosh’s How to Write a Blockbuster.

9780143572381(He was also responsible for introducing me to her writing which is fantastic. I can thoroughly recommend The French Promise and The Lavender Keeper. The novels are follow-on, but can also be read as stand-alone stories… but why would you?)

In the first chapter she encourages you to get serious writing.

  • If you want to be published, you have to get serious about it.
  • So your primary goal when you set out is to finish the manuscript. Learn to be consistent in completing what you start.

As I wrote about earlier the difference between a successful author is hard work (and opportunity).

Novelists who earn a good living from their books do not give themselves excuses. I wrote my first manuscript as a married mum with twin sons at junior primary while running a business with my husband; I did all my writing late at night while the house slept. The only person who missed out on anything in our household was me – I missed out on sleep and social events. But I did so because once I’d decided I was going to write my first novel, I became entirely committed to finishing the first draft.

She recommends:

  • Get your family ‘on side’. Work out a routine that works for you and your family. Don’t steal time from your family. They need you – and you need them. (See also this good post about writing and having children).
  • Give up television and the internet. It doesn’t mean you have to give it up entirely, but be very, very selective and strict in what you allow yourself. Set tight limits and stick to them.
  • Make sacrifices in your social life.
  • Be honest about when you’re working on your novel. Set up rigid boundaries; they are required to keep your writing time free from other things.
  • Respect your own working hours. When you’re working, work; ignore distractions.

While it’s okay at the beginning for everyone else to think of your writing as a hobby, you must think of yourself as a writer. It’s important to embrace the notion and approach it professionally…