My Wordsmith Life

Wordsmith Lockdown: Taking your book to the next level

If you’re an aspiring writer, chances are you’re writing ‘on the side’, that is, next to some other demanding thing in your life that takes up way more time than you need it to. It could be the job that pays your sizeable mortgage (if you live in Sydney like me, you’ll no doubt understand), your children or even just the mass of things that come with being alive (grocery shopping, social occasions, chores and so on).

Recently, I blogged about what happens when writing on the side turns into not writing at all. At this stage of my life, I am the perfect definition of a slashie: I work four days per week, I do a little freelance journalism work, a little blogging, a lot of parenting and at the moment, very little creative writing, even though I have a book deal that I hope will one day turn into a book-writing career. But when my book writing – one of the biggest priorities in my slashie life – took a massive hit, I had to re-evaluate the way that I looked at it.

And my answer, was wordsmith lockdown. I’ve used the term before, long long ago, when I was still an aspiring author and when my novel had no prospects of being published. Back then, I had very little demands in life by comparison, and because the publishing deal was so far far away (I still don’t believe that it happened with the ease that it did), sporadic writing was OK.

Now, it’s not OK and it’s definitely unhealthy if I want to make the book writing a regular thing. I realised I needed to commit to it and schedule it the way that I was committed to the other musts in my life.

So I made a deal with my husband: Every weekend, over Saturday and Sunday combined, I would, without fail, get 2-6 hours of solid writing time in the local library, where there were no distractions, no shops, no phone and no family members.

Two weeks in, it’s been one of the best moves I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve since realised that for me at least, the answer to countering a writer’s slump wasn’t sporadic sessions of writing that lasted for hours but didn’t come around again for two months (which is how I tended to write)  but continuous bouts of regular writing sessions: constant connections with my characters and their stories.

And this is why, 13 months after penning the first draft, the second draft of my novel is finally (FINALLY!) going somewhere. Of course, part of that had to be letting go of some of the bitterness that accompanied the long breaks taken at both my end and my publishers’. But part of that had to be re-evaluating my strategy: and that meant cutting everything less significant out and prioritising what needed to be paramount. In the process, I also evaluated some of my other approaches, which is why next week, I’ll also be sharing three tips on tackling your macro/structural edits when the process seems like a huge and daunting task.

We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but sometimes there are things that need more than just a fix, and they repair more than just the physical. They heal the wounds wrought out of painstaking efforts, hours of investment, and hopes built on dreams.

When books just go nowhere

For the first time ever in my writing career, I’m currently riding an unrelenting wave of bitterness. It’s exceptionally unusual for me: I’m ordinarily a happy, optimistic, resilient person who forgets why she’s mad (my husband loves this) and who never holds grudges, simply because they’re just not worth their weight.

But this time, it’s different. I’m not sure if it’s because my current emotional discontent is inextricably linked to something that usually offers me much content (writing) or if last year’s big changes to my body (pregnancy, childbirth) have also impacted my soul.

I just know that for the first time in a long time, I’m in an emotional slump. And it’s just not conducive to getting my second book out on the shelves. Hence the title of this post.

Let me explain –

For a book I am really proud of – even in its first draft form – The Yearbook Committee has given me a lot of grief. Some of it is my fault, like the fact that I decided to write five first-person fiction narratives when I’d only ever written one first-person story before. Creating and getting into the head of five characters – and developing different attitudes, ways of speaking and being, etc – is definitely more work than just worrying about the one.

Some it relates to a whole bunch of stuff that’s out of my control, like the fact that it took six months before I was given the editing notes on it and that commissioning illustrators for the cover art took way longer than expected, which meant that each delay on someone else’s part pushed me further down in my slump and impacted my own ability to work.

But most of it just me not being able to do what every writer says you should do. WRITE. Write even when everything is riding against you, when you have a billion other things on your plate, when life gets in the way and demands your attention – just ignore it all and write.

You’d think that having read this over and over, and shared it just as much via writer memes and interviews both here and on my social networks, that I would have been able to embrace this piece of advice by now. But I just can’t. I can’t do it, I can’t focus, I can’t prioritise. I just don’t know how to treat this job like every other one.

It’s harder to, admittedly. Writing books doesn’t offer regular payments as an incentive. I won’t get my next payment until the book is out on that shelf and my next payment happens to be my last. I’ve got the bulk of it already and the rest is just a little sprinkling of extra cash that I’ll probably use to fund something frivolous.

Also, it’s harder because it can get a little stagnant. When you are surrounded by constant stimulation, on social media and smart phones and TV, and you stimulate yourself by telling stories, you just want to move on to the next project. Tell the next tale, meet the next character, write a new setting. But you can’t, because even though that prior story is written, it’s not reading-ready. It needs to be stripped back, polished and told all over again.

I’m trying to remind myself that this buff-and-polish process is only going to make for a better book. I am also telling myself that everything happens for a reason and there’s probably a really good reason why my book has had its release date pushed back three times.

But really I need to be able to just tell myself that my husband can buy his own bacon and that I don’t have to save face by hanging out with everyone and that I will just have to deal with not having a proper writing space. You know, quit with the excuses and just do what I have to do, because I am the car taking the characters to their next destination and they have no other way of getting there.

Right now, I am not in the best working order, so there have been breakdowns on the road and no end point to the journey in sight. I desperately need a service, but it’s a catch 22. I am sad because I can’t write, and I can’t write because I am sad.

And all that does is leave my characters stranded, my heart a little lost, and my words wasted.


Motivational quotes that just aren’t working

I’ve officially started to panic about my second book. I realised this as we ventured into April, and something inside me just clicked. The calm that had preceded the fourth month of year simply vanished, and I realised that I couldn’t wait around for the words any more: time was passing quickly and forcefully, and the content of my second book was stuck in the same place that I left it in the last time I added a word to it – on the 20th December 2012. (FYI, it’s currently sitting at 4,000 words. I’d ideally like to get the first draft to about 55,000 before I workshop it with my agent, then flesh it out to about 65,000 before I hand it to my publisher. That’s what happened with my first book, which now sits at 75,000 words post-structural edit).

I could feel the pressure that I had not felt writing my first one, which I had all the time in the world for. Now I have only till September, and no matter what I do, I am just not in the zone. So I looked some advice for writers, and it turns out, most of it is just not tailored to the type of writer I am. Let’s take a look at five motivational quotes that are just not working for me at the moment*:

1-      Write drunk and edit sober (Ernest Hemingway):

I am quietly wondering if this one was meant just for his fun. Everyone loves a good drink, right? In March, when I started getting desperate, I actually tried this method. Glasses of Champagne, jugs of Sangria, and tumblers of screw drivers and lime caprioskas were all downed in the course of the experiment, but the results were less than favourable, unless you count my husband nicknaming me ‘boozy’ and wrestling a bottle of wine out of my hand on a weeknight as a good thing. On one occasion, I got so drunk that I feel asleep at 8:30, woke up at 2am, went back to sleep at 4am and then rose again at 9. No writing was done, and the experience was not exactly conducive to the‘writing routine’ that works for many writers.

2-      Don’t get it right, just get it written (James Thurber):

I think this may be in line with Nora Roberts’ you can’t edit a blank page remark. Admittedly, both Thurber and Roberts have a great point. My first draft of my forthcoming novel wasn’t as good as the final draft because of the workshopping and editing process. My problem is that I am too critical. Of other people’s work and my own. I don’t give books with bad writing chances. Not that I think whatever I am writing is going to perfect the first time around, but I still want it to be good. I want to be able to read it and not hate it. To that end, I have tried and tried and tried to write down whatever I can in the hope of furthering the storyline, but I scoff at my own words and then I go eat an entire bag of microwave popcorn. If my wardrobe could talk (and see things for that matter), I’m sure it would express its preference for the blank page then deal with the repercussions of me wallowing over my growing waistline with great flair and drama when I don’t fit into my super-tight royal blue jeans.

3-      Step away from the screen (Austin R Leon):

Admittedly, I have no idea who Austin R Leon is, or whether he’s alive, but I wonder if he has a crystal ball that sees into my study. If he did, he’d know that I need this particular source of advice a lot. I spend 90% of my day in front of the screen, lest I get a flash of inspiration. But I figured that it was probably hindering rather than enhancing the writing experience, so lately I have been doing a lot of other things. Having no-writing weekends (trust me, this is bigger news than the sex of the royal baby), going to the park, watching TV, making time for hobbies, going for walks. Even boxing. And squats with weights and chin-ups (and this is bigger than no-writing weekends). But no matter that I did, the words still wouldn’t come. Needless to say, I am back in front of the screen at 5:30am most mornings and unless my fitness-fanatic husband has anything to do with it, there will be no more chin-ups. I could only do three anyway, and I suspect he was helping me out for the confidence boost.

4-      Be courageous and try to write in a way that scares you a little (Holley Gerth):

This is actually the kind of advice I love. I admit that it’s a nice challenge and change from the adage of write what you know, which formed the basis of my first novel. But my proneness to word vomit and my desire to ‘expand my skill set as a writer’ meant that the idea I pitched to my publisher for the second book was  one that, as per the advice above, scared me a little. I am writing in a different style, and about subject matter I don’t have personal experience with, only the experience gained on a secondary basis through interviews with teen case studies and experts in the course of my journalism work. I have a whole page of notes and ideas, and I know how the story should finish, but it’s the fill-ins that are freaking me out a little. The problem with this advice is that I am so scared; the words won’t come out at all.

5-      If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet but you’ll never be a novelist (Neil Gaiman):

This is my problem. I love to ‘feel’ the story. I want to feel like I have had an intimate chat with my characters, like they’ve just told me a secret about their lives. I wait for the inspiration – it’s what made my first book work. Which kind of disproves the whole you’ll-never-be-a-novelist theory. That and my poems still rhyme; and I don’t think anyone in the industry is in the market for rhyming poems from a 26 year old. Perhaps this quote needs to be re-worked to say you’ll be a novelist who never meets the deadline. After all, that is where I am heading.

*These quotes are motivational and inspiring. I am not picking them apart because I think I know all there is to know about writing. I am just lamenting the fact that I can’t apply them to my current situation. Or that I am just really bad at it.  




My Creative Writing Play List

I have been getting my writing mojo on where my manuscript is concerned*. After almost a year of paying it zero attention, even though I was almost/practically half way (I forget, because I have not been writing it in order – for example, I wrote chapters 17, 19, 21 and the last chapter before I wrote chapters 2-13, and mixed-up things like that).

But last Friday, something happened. I discovered 96.1 on the radio, a station which apparently plays the kind of music that DJs spun at my high school parties. And for some reason, even though I really hated the music back then, I LOVED it. I lapped it up. It was amazingly inspiring.

So as soon as I got out of the car and into the office, I started writing. That was at 3:30pm. I wrote until 5, had a break for dinner, and wrote from six to 8:45 pm. And then I wrote a teeny bit more earlier on in the week, and I am writing again today. All because of some blast-from-the-past music.

I tend to think my renewed, musically-inspired enthusiasm for the manuscript makes perfect sense. The music I speak of (stay tuned – oh pardon the pun – for the playlist below) is kinda ghetto-y, performed by the likes of Nelly and Ja Rule, and thus a great fit for my set-in-Bankstown YA novel. After all, all the boys in Bankstown think they’re ghetto gangsters, and once upon a time, this music was their predecessors’ (aka my generation’s) High-School Gangsta Ghetto Gospel. I don’t know what the current generation is listening to now, but I do know that my generation got over it for the likes of House and Funk and Dance genres.

Anyway, immersing myself in the kind of music that was (in some cases) gospel to the type of people I am writing about almost at the time that I am writing about (I was 17 in 2003, and I am writing about 2006) has served me well. I don’t know how long it will serve me well for, but for the mean time, I am riding the musically-inspired wave. Here’s a peek into the playlist:

  • Ashanti – Foolish
  • City High – What would you do
  • Nelly & P Diddy – Shake ya Tailfeather
  • Ja Rule ft Ashanti – Mesmerize
  • Ja Rule ft Ashanti – Always on time
  • Fat Joe & Ashanti – What’s love
  • 112 – Peaches & Cream
  • 112 – Dance with Me
  • Jagged Edge – Let’s Get Married
  • Ja Rule – Livin’ it up
  • Tupac & Elton John – Ghetto Gospel
  • Tupac – Changes
  • Boys II Men – Roll with me
  • Brandy ft R Kelly – Afrodisiac
  • Jay Z & Beyonce – Crazy in Love
  • P Diddy (and others) – I need a girl (Parts 1 & 2)
  • Jay Z & Beyonce – Bonnie & Clyde
  • Nelly – Ride with Me

Fun huh? Not really into the kind of music that objectifies women through the lyrics and/or film clips, but if it’s going to get me writing, well, then I ain’t complaining (and evidently, neither are the bikini-clad girls in the film clips).

I’d be interested in seeing/hearing/reading what inspires your writing, so please take a moment to comment about it. I’d honestly enjoy knowing.

* Lest there be any confusion: I don’t actually have a book deal. I have a couple of positive shoves, one from an agent, and one from a YA publisher. They’re obviously not going to sign me if I can’t deliver (which seemed to be the case over much of 2010) but they’re still quite encouraging because they have told me that from what they have seen, my story has potential. So yes the ball is in my court. And yes, there is a chance it won’t ever be published. No, this doesn’t diminish my motivation levels, because I will keep on trying even if it gets rejected until I am exhausted of trying. Yes, I am very optimistic. I agree, I have to be. But, yes, I do like talking about. It makes it a little bit more real and makes me want to work on it even more. And you know what? I do experience the It’s-never-going-to-happen and I-can’t-go-on moments with it. A LOT. But the other day, I emailed the agent lady to see if she was still interested in reading it even though I missed my delivery deadline by many many months, and she said yes. There’s hope for me yet. Which means there’s hope for you too.

Pondering about simultaneous pitching

I am extremely frazzled today. Was frazzled yesterday too, on account of the load of writing I have to do. Sounds like a good thing, but in reality it’s not. I am actually writing pitches – loads of them in fact. I have so many articles on the backburner, and at least three magazines who are waiting for an article on spec (that’s when you write the article first, and then they decide if they want to buy it).

The thing is, I have wasted weeks and weeks waiting on pitch feedback from magazines only to be told that they’re not interested way down the track (and usually after I have followed up countless times). As a result, I have crazy thoughts rushing through my head, thoughts that break the taboo of freelance writing and go something along the lines of pitch to anyone and everyone and let it be first in, first served.

The thing is, I have always professed to do everything by the book. I mean, I studied journalism at university for four years and apart from the fact that I am the biggest goody-two-shoes that does not break rules EVER, I feel it is slightly unprofessional to do what I am contemplating. But stories are like time-bombs that only have a limited time, and there’s nothing like being told your article has lost its timeliness in the six weeks its been waiting in someone’s inbox, when all they had to do was drop you a quick line via email saying thanks but no thanks. 

So naturally, I am sitting here, run off my feet but with not much to show for it, contemplating what should never be done: Pitching to multiple publications at the same time. Apart from being unprofessional, it could get me in trouble if, in an ideal world, more than one publication actually wanted it.

And considering I am just getting to breakfast now (and I have been up since 6am mind you) I really can’t handle the pressure. Anyone reading ever been in a similar pickle?

So let me calculate: I have four pitches to write, three articles to write on spec, and three interviews to conduct today. Yep, I really need that time machine right about now….And in case you think I am exaggerating – take a look at the horror that is my (ugly) desk. Apart from the fact that I want to buy a new pretty one but lack the funds (especially since I discovered a hole in my sneakers this morning and obviously shoes that aren’t missing any vital parts are more pressing) you can see that it in fact, has been hit by the time bomb of pressing stories. Check out the post its and to do lists, and if you can, the pile of books up top that need reviewing. Sigh. And of course, because it’s now 1:40pm and life is not doing it for me these days, breakfast in the bottom left-hand corner. Writing is a labour of love, Sarah, writing is a labour of love. 

But surely even love has a time-bomb that will eventually explode if it doesn’t do good by you? I guess my writing and I will figure that out soon enough…