Category Archives: Writing Process

Rabbitholes

Beautiful white bunny rabbit sitting in front of burrow in ground

Queensland Writers Centre periodically offers a ‘Rabbithole’ – a weekend where you pack up your notebook/computer/clay tablet or whatever you write on, head in to QWC headquarters, sit round a nice big table in air-conditioned comfort with a bunch of other writers – and write! I love the studious atmosphere, the sense of support, and the general feeling that writing is a valuable activity to which it is entirely legitimate to devote uninterrupted time – loads of it.

This weekend I wasn’t able to score a seat at the table, so I took myself off to lovely lively Grange Library and participated from a distance. The event gives you permission to shirk all other responsibilities and social commitments, and just write. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world – you can link in via Facebook, and enjoy a sense of connection with other writers while you get on with manifesting the people in your head.

I managed about 10,000 words on a new MS, and a detailed outline of the story. As an inveterate plotter, I was thrilled with the experience of writing 10,000 words by ‘pantsing’ (writing by the seat of your pants, without a plan to follow).

Can thoroughly recommend the Rabbithole as a way to stop procrastinating and put your Work In Progress first. Most of us, in our busy lives, seem to need that permission and encouragement. Many thanks, QWC!

http://www.qwc.asn.au/

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Play

??????????????????????Writing is a creative process. Sure, it’s hard work and needs to be taken seriously – sometimes. But at the very beginning of a story, or when you hit a boggy patch, take time to play.
Julia Cameron speaks of “listening to our artist child within”. Allowing ourselves to be childish – to play – is essential to the creative process. I’ve written elsewhere about the distinction between so-called left and right brain “modes”: the left mode being more serial, rational, logical and quantitative; and the right more parallel, intuitive, connective and performative. Play can help you move from left-brain mode (required to write operational plans and budgets) to right-brain mode (required to write stories). Depending on our day jobs, some of us need more help than others to make the switch!
Artists play in different ways. Here are some of my play techniques: I’d love to hear about yours.
Colour
I enjoy buying stationery – even just browsing the aisles! – and the main facet that attracts me is colour. I make bright colours a routine element of my writing practice and environment, so something as boring as filing a note or a sketchy draft paragraph becomes fun. Each of my draft novels is allocated a box-file, in a colour that relates to the novel’s content. My first novel actually had the working title “Blue”.
Elements
I use playful symbols of the elements to redress imbalances of mood. My office is furnished with many candle holders, for when I feel dark and stodgy and in need of fire. A wind-chime reminds me to be light and airy; a desk-top water-feature encourages a sense of fluidity. Rocks help me get grounded. Some of my coloured touchstones represent particular qualities, and I’ll hold one or put it on my desk while writing to remind me of that quality, whether I need it for myself or a character. The meanings attached to my touchstones are purely idiosyncratic. For example, the turquoise reminds me of an editor friend who often wears that colour, and who is extremely good at organising herself to focus on the task at hand. When I need to channel Helena, I carry the turquoise around!

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Tools
A number of my novels are written in first person, two in the form of journals. To write my YA novel, I selected a visual arts diary of the kind I thought my character Storm would love, with thick creamy pages and stout spiral binding. I bought coloured gel pens, and wrote in whatever colour I imagined Storm would select to express her mood at the time. When I began my fantasy/steam-punk/weird novella, The Serial Journal of Phileas Postlethwaite, I had just been given as a birthday present a mock leather-bound journal that tied with a thong. The giver intended me to use it on an upcoming tall ship voyage, since it suited the period, but I had to buy another notebook as my ship’s journal – I had filled up the gift with Phileas’ reflections on his weird world!

???????????????????????????????Costume
I didn’t dress up to write as Phileas, but I did to write as Storm. In the novel, Storm has a favourite jumper with black-and-white striped sleeves. That was a jumper I’d picked up in an op shop, and often wore when I was writing as Storm, especially in the hard bits!

???????????????????????????????Visual arts
I’m highly visual, so I like to play with visual arts materials. Coloured modelling clay is a favourite, to get into playful space. Drawing exercises are great for integrating left and right brain ways of perceiving and creating. Try making a collage as a way to explore your character, setting, or theme.
Other toys
I use a range of playful knickknacks to encourage a creative state of mind. A mini Zen garden is an aid to quieting unhelpful racing thoughts. As I dismantle the previous pattern, rake the sand smooth and create something new, I can feel my brain slowing down, thinking more deeply and richly about what I want to write. A few minutes of three-ball juggling helps integrate the left and right sides of my brain and body, while contact juggling one or two balls steadies my breathing and enhances my focus. If I need to get energized, I turn to a skipping rope or hula hoop!

???????????????????????????????Depending on your interests, the options are probably limitless. Just make sure your playthings are easily accessible, so the play can happen the moment you’re ready for it, and writing can flow from the play.
What about you – how do you play, to help you write?

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Ideas

In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #17 ‘Calliope’, Morpheus punishes a writer by overwhelming him with ideas for stories. ‘They’re coming so fast,’ gasps the writer, ‘swamping me, overwhelming me…’

Like most writers, I occasionally wonder what I’ve done to offend Morpheus.

Margaret Atwood seems to have the same problem. She recently responded to the question, ‘How do you generate ideas for stories?’ with the pithy comment ‘I have too many ideas – no need to generate them!’ (http://www.waterstones.com/blog/2014/08/ask-atwood-the-answers/)

newt in a fountainIt’s the classic clichéd reader-to-writer question: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ As if ideas are rare and precious things – diamonds – we must scratch and search and dig for, and hoard once we find them. Keith Johnstone, granddaddy of performance improvisation, points out that ideas are all around us, inside and out, flowing through us every minute of every day – we exist in a gushing torrent of ideas, like newts in a fountain. Being ‘stuck for an idea’, Keith says, means we’re blocking our own creativity: judging and rejecting perfectly good ideas before we’ve even let them into consciousness.

The real question is not ‘Where do you get ideas?’ but ‘What happens to turn ideas into stories?’ Well, a lot of things.

Capturing

John Gregory Dunne said the thing most necessary to being a writer is always having the means at hand to record an idea when it strikes you. Joan Diderot, in her 1996 essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, said her notebooks were full of ‘bits of the mind’s string too short to use’ – moments, impressions, that later might get woven into something substantial. I use the voice recorder function on my phone; I have friends who use Google Docs. Find tools that work for you, and catch those passing ideas.

Prioritising

I don’t know about you, but my time and energy are limited. Sometimes a story idea seizes my brain and won’t let go: it saves me the trouble of prioritising by insisting, ‘I go first!’ Unfortunately, the initial flush of energy rarely lasts long enough to finish the story before a new idea starts pushing and shoving, demanding attention. I do as much as I can with one idea – making sure it’s all written down or recorded – before I get distracted. That way at least I’ve got something to come back to when time and brainspace allow.

Sometimes, a particular competition or publication opportunity looms. That makes prioritisation easier: if you know one idea is more suitable than others for the length of story required, the theme, or the judges, you can focus on it.

Matching

You have an idea you really like. Now, what form will best serve the communication of this idea? Is it a poem? A prose poem or a sestina? Is it a song lyric? A rap or an anthem? A rap anthem? Maybe it’s a huge idea with lots of ramifications to unpack. A novel, then? Or is it a delicate, intricate, tiny but powerful idea, perfect for a piece of flash fiction? You might not be sure until you begin to write, but often the idea itself suggests certain forms and gives the thumbs-down to others.

Combining

One idea does not a story make. I have a colleague who won’t begin a story until he has three unrelated ‘elements’, or ideas, to combine. He writes about these elements with the aim of drawing them together, and the process of doing this generates new ideas.

This is where it’s useful to have lots of ideas sitting around in various stages of development. Maybe Idea X isn’t strong enough to drive a whole story on its own – but combined with Y and Z, it’s a winner.

Expanding and exploring

An idea just popped into your head – in the shower, at the theatre, over dinner with your in-laws. What is it about this idea that’s triggered your writerly instincts? Different writers explore ideas in different ways. I like to brainstorm a fresh idea, with pen and paper or onto the voice recorder, before trying to write about it. My writing buddy will mull the idea over while walking the dog, then sit down and begin slowly and thoughtfully writing the story. Whatever your process, what you’re doing at this point is exploring and expanding the idea – ‘extending’, in impro theatre terms. See where it goes. Investigate what other ideas it brings in its train. Decide where you want to put the limits around it, for the purposes of this particular tale. The process will continue as you write, rewrite and edit the story, but it’s nice to devote some serious time to ‘exploring the idea’ right at the start.

Expressing

Yup, the bit where the rubber meets the road. One of my uni lecturers memorably told the class, ‘Ideas are beautiful. They live in a beautiful place called Ideas-Land. As soon as you start trying to wrestle them through to the plane we live on, they inevitably get mangled. Your skill as a writer lies in your ability to unmangle them, and return them to a semblance of their original beauty.’ I was profoundly relieved to discover I was not the only idea-mangler.ideas land

You get a choice of exercises this week. Select freely, according to your current need.

  1. Review how you capture ideas. Do you have a system? Could it work better, perhaps by using different tools?
  2. Practise prioritising. Are you dithering around among too many projects, too many ideas? Pick one and make some real progress on it. Capture intrusive competing ideas and set them aside until you get a tangible outcome from Idea Number One.
  3. Go through your Random Ideas file and note down at least 3-4 different forms in which you could imagine this idea at home (e.g. flash fiction piece with a satirical tone, murder mystery, sit-com episode, sonnet, etc.) Cast your net wide. Which of these are you interested in writing? Note down one form you think definitely wouldn’t suit this idea. Why not? You might be surprised what you learn about the idea itself through doing this exercise.
  4. If you’re feeling playful, pick three ideas that seem completely unrelated. Give yourself a time limit (5 or 10 minutes). Write the first draft of a piece that brings those seemingly disparate ideas together.
  5. Take one idea and explore it in a way you normally wouldn’t. Go for a walk (or a bike-ride, drive, kayak etc.) and dedicate your brain to exploring that idea until you get back. Flip through magazines looking for images that illustrate the idea in some way, and create a collage. Use butcher’s paper and coloured pens to make a concept map. Assemble a soundtrack that explores various facets of the idea. Improvise an expressive dance. The point is to try something you haven’t tried before, and in doing so equip yourself with new techniques for creating the idea-to-story bridge. Feel free to Comment and share your own techniques. Happy writing!

Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at http://fictionsoutheast.com

 

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Conflicting advice

For most of my life, I’ve considered writing to be a solitary activity. When I began studying creative writing at university, I discovered the joys and frustrations of ‘critique groups’. Then my fellow-student Kathy George and I adopted each other as ‘writing buddies’. In the process of co-writing an article on writing partnerships for WQ, we interviewed fourteen other writers, who all told us they rely on fellow-writers for mutual support. Some people work one-on-one with a single trusted writing friend, others operate in groups of up to eight (though more commonly three to five).

One of the main ways writing buddies support each other is through providing feedback (sometimes called critique or constructive criticism) on work-in-progress. But here’s where it gets tricky. What if you don’t agree with your buddy’s feedback on your story?

Jenny writes a story and is very pleased with the climax, which she considers subtle and powerful. Her writing buddy Ryan, however, just doesn’t ‘get it’. Jenny explains the climax to Ryan, who suggests she provide a few more clues so the reader knows what’s happening. Jenny fears this will give too much away, risks telling rather than showing, and doesn’t demonstrate trust in the reader. She hopes Ryan’s missing of the point is just an aberration: on most of her target readers, she thinks, the climax will have the impact she’s aiming for.

How can she test this optimistic hypothesis? She sends the story to another three writing friends. Emma thinks it’s brilliant, and insists she mustn’t change a word. Viv, like Ryan, doesn’t get it, and Anthony understands what’s happened in the climax but is underwhelmed.Different ideas

Jenny tries to analyse why her buddies’ responses are so different. It doesn’t seem to be a gender thing. It’s not that they read and write different genres: each of these people appreciates and experiments with diverse writing styles. Emma has known her the longest, so perhaps Emma’s knowledge of Jenny as a person has helped her grasp and enjoy the story.

What should Jenny do next?

  1. Send the story to some more people, and keep monitoring reactions. She’s running out of writing friends, but maybe she should just find people who belong to her target market. There are potential problems here. She may end up with even more conflicting advice. Non-writers may feel ill-qualified to ‘judge’ her work, and may tell her it’s great out of politeness. Or tell her it’s not great, but be unable to articulate why not. And what if her sample ends up equally divided between thumbs-up and thumbs-down? How’s she going to feel, and what’s she going to do?
  2. Look for an expert who can tell her definitively whether the story ‘works’ or not. Unfortunately, as William Goldman once famously remarked in relation to Hollywood, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ The most experienced agent or commissioning editor will sometimes completely misjudge what the readership will accept, understand, and embrace. Anyway, opportunities to access genuine expert advice on a specific story are rare and usually expensive.
  3. Send the story to market as is. After all, there must be people out there like herself and Emma, who’ll get the story straight away and love it. On the plus side, this is one way to get expert advice. If Jenny sends the story to a magazine, the editor may either publish it (yay!) or send specific guidance for a rewrite or to inform Jenny’s future efforts. Sadly, the chances of receiving such feedback from an editor nowadays are slim: it’s usually just yea or nay. If it’s nay, Jenny may have spoiled her story’s chances with this editor. And the story could be tied up for a long time waiting on that fairly unhelpful nay, unless Jenny has chosen a publication that allows simultaneous submissions.

I don’t have an answer for this one – do you? What would you do?

 

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Rewriting

Often when we talk about the “rewriting” stage of a manuscript, we’re really talking about editing and polishing. We take the material we’ve written and shuffle it around, cut some bits, expand others, add a scene, correct the punctuation, and so on. This is all very easy to do with a word processor.

But there can be great value in actually “rewriting” the manuscript: turning to a blank page (or opening a new document) and starting again from scratch. Most of us probably wouldn’t do this with a complete nrewritingovel manuscript (though some do, and I have). However, it may be the best approach to a scene, chapter, or short story that just isn’t working. Sometimes, the more you tinker with the draft, the worse it gets. You’re better off starting over.

One approach to rewriting is to change something quite fundamental, and see what happens. Here are a few examples:

The protagonist

Particularly in a short story, it’s easy to make too early and easy a decision about who the main character is. Perhaps, if the story is based on events that happened in your life, you’ve unconsciously selected the “you” character as the protagonist. If the story’s not working, try rewriting it with another character in the leading role – and/or from another character’s point of view.

The point of view

If you’ve written the story in first person, what happens if you change the point of view to limited third person, or omniscient third person? I once rewrote the draft of a novel from limited third person into a first person/quasi second person narrative stance, with the narrator an omniscient being observing and addressing the protagonist (a little like Death in The Book Thief, except that Death commentates on Liesel’s activities rather than speaking directly to her). I ended up changing back to limited third person, but the voice had changed for the better. My limited third person approach had been too limited. Once I allowed a few more insights into the character and her situation to shine through (insights I’d gained courtesy of my first person narrator), the text became much more lively and less opaque.

The framing device

Is this story being told by one character to another, late one night in a pub? Is it a dramatic monologue? Is it being narrated as a first-person reminiscence? Whatever the frame, if the story’s not working, a “reframe” might provide a useful starting point for a “rewrite”.

Mood and tone

Is this a serious piece, that might work better as a comic one? Or vice versa? Is the overall mood sombre or cheery? See what happens if you try for a mood or tone that contrasts with the one you’ve established in the first version. Can you, by taking a radically different approach, achieve more light and shade?

Voice

What about the language – is it generally formal, with longish and well-constructed sentences, or is it colloquial and chatty? What about the pace? Voice will of course depend heavily on the choices you’ve made above – protagonist, point of point, frame, mood and tone. But even if these remain the same as in the first version, can you rewrite using a very different voice? Try not to reuse phrases from the original.

The idea of rewriting from scratch is to free your creativity to give you something fresh and new, rather than feeling constrained by what’s already on the page. At the end of the day you’ll probably meld the two versions into something that’s stronger than either. And then it’s time for editing and polishing!

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The Next Big Thing – I answer 10 questions

The Next Big Thing is a blog chain where writers answer ten questions about their writing, then tag other writers to do the same. I was tagged by Kathy George, prize-winning short story writer, and author of the wonderfully atmospheric Gothic novel Sargasso. You can read her post here. My answers follow.

Ocean channel between rocks 1. What is the title of your current book?

Still Water

2. Where did the idea come from?

I’m a clinical psychologist by background, and my specialist field is adolescent mental health. Over my clinical career I’ve worked with many brave, funny, ingenious, dignified, dauntless people aged 13-18, battling severe and complex mental health problems in often horrific life circumstances. My protagonist, Storm, is inspired in a general way by the privilege of working with these amazing young people.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It’s young adult fiction. The genre is realism, which I know is unfashionable (not a vampire lover or zombie apocalypse in sight), but I believe young people are still interested in reading about the kinds of problems and situations they encounter day to day. Love, friendship, families, sex, bullying, teachers, trying to work out where you’re headed and what you really want out of life – little details like that.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Showing my age, the only people I can think of to play Storm are Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club or Lizzy Caplan from Mean Girls. Maybe Ellen Page from Juno. Except Storm’s Australian. I’m sure there are wonderful young Australian actors out there, who’ll be ready to play Storm brilliantly when the time comes.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Sixteen year-old Storm wants to become a world-class documentary maker – but life has bigger ideas.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m working on finding an agent (do you know one?)

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?

The first draft took a month to actually write – it was, quite by accident, a NaNoWriMo effort – but I’d been working on the story for a year by then because I’m writing two versions of the same events: one from Storm’s perspective (Still Water) and one from the perspective of an adult character called Susan (The Child Pose). It’s taken another three months of feedback and polishing to turn Still Water into a finished manuscript. The Child Pose is slowly getting there.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I read quite a bit of YA fiction but I haven’t come across a book that’s similar to Still Water in plot. I guess it’s a coming-of-age novel. It has some similarities with Kate Constable’s Crow Country – a city girl unwillingly transplanted to a small town forms a close relationship with a boy, meets some wildlife, and comes to appreciate what lies below the surface of the place.

But no time travel. Sorry.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m fascinated by questions of how people interact with places – with the natural environment, and with other people in that environment. I’m from a country town that still doesn’t possess a traffic light (let alone traffic). I think small towns in fiction are manageable microcosms, providing insights into big questions about environmental, family and community responsibilities.

I started out focusing on the adult character, Susan. But in the course of writing The Child Pose, Storm really got under my skin. From the start I found her funnier, more complex, and yet easier to relate to, than any of the adult characters. Maybe I just like teenagers better than adults. As soon as I started writing Storm’s diary, in first person, the story flowed out. It reminded me of interviewing: all I was doing was writing down Storm’s words. I still feel a sense of responsibility to do justice to her story, as if she were a real person.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The town of Stillwater, where the novel is set, is a mix of places from up and down the Queensland and New South Wales coasts, with an occasional touch of Tasmania, South Australia, and Papua New Guinea thrown in. So you might recognise a beloved spot from real life, slipped into the fiction.

And Storm’s bloke Nathan is – in the words of my test readers – “a spunk and a sweetie”. If he were real, and I were several decades younger, I’d almost want to sail away with him myself.

I would now like to introduce you to two lovely Brisbane writers, who will be posting their answers to the 10 questions in a week’s time.

Kate Zahnleiter holds a Masters degree in creative writing. In 2011 she was the recipient of the QUT Postgraduate Writing Prize, and her short fiction has been published in One Book, Many Brisbanes; Rex and Review of Australian Fiction. She is currently working on her first novel, Fitting in with Normal People, which was recently accepted into the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program.

Kim Douglas has completed a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing at QUT, and plans to articulate to Masters. She is working on her first novel, The Black Dog in Greek, and has just started blogging as a strategy to manage writer’s block.

If you have a blog and are working on a book (or have recently completed/published one), you may like to participate in The Next Big Thing yourself. Contact me, Kate or Kim!

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Playful collaboration

I was intrigued by a tweet from Margaret Attwood: “Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman: It might seem rather unexpected, but there’s a Deeper Meaning to the zombie craze”. I went here to read more.

The most interesting aspect of the article for me was not the suggestion that zombies have a deeper meaning in our society (like all monsters), or the argument that fantasy should not be hived off from “serious fiction” (which I consider self-evident). It’s the idea of two writers, in this case mentor and mentee, writing a serial novel turn-and-turn about. I love Naomi’s description of “Waiting to get Margaret’s chapter, reading it gleefully, trying to come up with something that might take the story in an unexpected direction or give her a problem to solve. Then waiting again to see what she’s come up with for me.”

What fun that sounds! Trudy Cooper and I did a similar thing many years ago, writing and illustrating a children’s book. The book unfortunately never reached publication stage, but creating it was a delightful process. That was in the days before email. One of us would write a chapter, we’d meet at a cafe to read and discuss it (and to eat lots of nice things and talk the world down), then we’d go apart while the other person wrote the next chapter and Trudy got on with the illustrations, then we’d meet again. As Naomi says, “writing is storytelling, and storytelling… is play.”

Of course, the fact that Attwood and Alderman are using Wattpad to get their book out to readers is interesting in itself, in the context of current debates about e-publishing and the changing nature of “the book”. I wonder if Trudy and I would have finished our children’s book, if we’d had at our disposal the various digital tools that are available today – for communicating with each other, let alone with audiences.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the way my writing buddy and I are working at present. We’re both writing novels at the same time, so we spend almost as much time reading and commenting on each other’s chapters as writing our own. It’s a joyous, productive, supportive process, and it feels like we’re really achieving quality work – separately, yet together.

I’d be interested to hear stories of other people’s “playful collaborations” in the creation of fiction. Do you write alone, or with a friend?

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