To Write or Not To Write?

How can I put into perspective how difficult I find the practice of writing a novel? Words with purpose. Sentences that express some truth. Scenes that join thwritinge dots.

I don’t know?

At times, I feel my attempts at writing a novel may be the hardest thing I’ll ever do. Harder than maintaining the two most important relationships of my life (my wife and my son)? Harder than continually challenging myself and developing my career in the hospitality industry? Harder than simply being a person on this planet at this moment in time?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, I think, so hard, too hard, the skills required to write a novel that holds together from beginning, through the muddle to the end.

Other times, I’m harsh with myself – ‘First world problems, man.’ I have a good job. I have a loving family. I have a roof over my head and food in the pantry. I am living in the most abundant era ever. I lack for nothing.

And so, yeah, I could give up writing. Why should I struggle so much? I could choose not to face the keyboard and blank page-on-screen every morning. Who needs that 5.15am alarm?

Viggo-Mortensen-in-Good-007

Seriously, 5.15am. It’s dark when I get up and it’s still dark when I finish writing at 6.15am. There’s no audience. There’s no pat on the back. There’s no-one there to say, ‘Good job, dude. Love your work!’

There’s just me, my practice and this tornado inside of me that demands I continue to ‘Show Up’.

So, giving up, chnew-crescent-2.jpgoosing not to write is an option. Of course it is.

But that won’t stop the feeling inside that needs an outlet for the ideas that are always swirling around my head. They won’t go away. They’ve flowed through me like tributaries trickling from the
mountaintop down into the valley where the river masses and swells my whole life.

As a writer I’m trying to navigate these waterways. Trying to craft my voice, my style, my unique and sincere self through the stories I want to tell.

And this is hard for me. Almost every day, in some way, I struggle with how best to communicate my literary ideas through story. Often, I feel like I’m failing. Sometimes, I have some positive self-talk: ‘Keep turning up, Ken. Keeping working the problem through showing your dedication to your characters, your story and your practice.’

Other times, most times, I’m not so gentle and generous. One day I may finish a novel that ends up somewhere near where I want it to. I really hope for the day. And as best I can, I will fight my corner. I will continue to show up, because while my confidence waxes and wanes, the urge to tell stories and write never does.

I finally worked out what my novel is about

I finally worked out what my novel is about.

This came on the back of some anticipated anxiety ahead of going to a BBQ with some new family friends over the weekend. My passion for writing is not something I volunteer unless directly asked. But I always imagine under what circumstances the subject may arise and how I’d handle it. And with this chat-route programmed into the Google (Conversation) Map app in my head, I played out a scene every writer and wannabe author has encountered in response to the statement, ‘I love to write’:

 

Them:   Oh (as if this is in some way unfortunate). Have you had anything published?

Me:        No.

Them:   (look of both disappointment and smugness right away apparent) What sort of, um, (searches for a word that might bridge the gap between their understanding of what a writer is and does and what I might do), things do you write about?

Me:        Fictional stories, mostly, in a modern, contemporary setting. I’m interested in journeys that see a person pushed far beyond what they thought they could handle and what happens next.

Them:   Are you writing anything now?

Me:        Yes. I’ve been working on a novel for a little over a year.

Them:   (here it comes…) What’s it about?

Me:        Um…(pauses, uncertainty and bashfulness writ large upon my face)

Laptop-with-blank-notepad

I always felt I needed to be able to sum up whatever I am writing into one brief sentence, into a tag-line, or log-line. This statement needs to convey the totality of my novel and my inability to do so (see my previous post about the dreaded synopsis) confirms my failure as a writer and communicator.

Not that I’m in such an insecure place as a writer at the moment. But now and then doubt creeps in.

In fact, while this situation was playing out in my head I happened to be washing dishes, the sudsy water especially hot. I’ve decided that washing dishes is akin to hot showers and the link to creativity and idea-generation. Any act that can sufficiently absorb us and consume our primary attention can be a godsend when it comes to releasing repressed epiphanies.

In the middle of my gentlest attempts to clean our best champagne flutes, it came to me, what my novel is about.

For so long, I’ve being trying to formulate it in the following way:

My novel is about [this].

This’ being the one singular and overriding theme or purpose of the story.

As I rinsed excess soapy bubbles off the base and stem of the glasses, it all became so evident. My novel is actually about [this] and [this], and [this] too. There’s a few other things I could throw in, but hey, for right now, it’s a good place to start.

It’s what any novel is about. One sentence just won’t do it. And it doesn’t have to.

interstellar-posterIt was while watching the film Interstellar a year ago when I saw how the many tectonic plates that comprised the world created by writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan fused together to form one larger world. A world where there was not one prevailing idea, but many, all co-existing, each ebbing and flowing as the story unfolded:

 

  • What does having hope, making a promise and faith in others cost us?
  • When are we best served by being brave or cautious?
  • Love as truly a tangible, observable phenomenon
  • To be able to move on (in the case of the movie, survive) we have to be willing to let go and lose something

 

On some level of comprehension, in that cinema, it made perfect sense to me. Though it’s taken another 12 months before I’ve been really able to absorb this understanding and make it manifest in my own writing.

christopher-nolan-jonathan-nolan

So much of my own writing journey over the past 4 years has been about unlearning what I thought I knew, then humbling myself and my presumed abilities so that I can learn anew what’s really important about writing, and myself as a writer and person.

As I left the glasses to drain and went to work on the breakfast plates, this all felt very big. And so I did what I’m learning to do more often. I took a breath, dried my hands, grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down a few notes. Then I finished the rest of the dishes, a little happy with myself, a little awed by how much I still have to learn.

Who are you?

In celebration of a whole year of Cringings we asked our regular contributors, both past and present, to tell us about themselves: who they are, why they write and what inspires them in life and art. The answers are as varied as they are entertaining, a symbolic cross-section of the vast range of writers working in Australia today. Here follows the first in our series of interviews. Enjoy.

By-QqyWIUAAfmbG

Who are you?

Jane Abbott: I’m a single mother, living (mostly) in Melbourne with my two teenaged sons. Prior to 2013, despite a deep-seated desire to ‘write … one day’, I’d never really put myself to the test.

Conan Elphicke: A former travel writer and freelance journalist, I’m now working on yet-to-be-published children’s middle-grade fiction. When it comes to the Cringe, I’m among other things the ghost-writer for confused visionary Sir Partridge Gormley. Though he seems to have died or something because I’ve not heard a peep from him for months.

Elise Janes: I sing jazz, I play violin, I read read read, I go to film festivals, I watch theatre, I wear bright colours and I drink red wine. I have lived in Montreal and on an island in the Whitsundays. My ideal date is Spanish food, spicy cocktails and a table to myself. I watch too many Vine compilations. I laugh at hipsters but eat their food. I often say too much.

Sean Macgillicuddy: I once knew a man who believed he was living his life backwards. He wasn’t joking, or being clever, or on anything that might have led to this odd conviction. At the time, I didn’t get it. However, as I near the end of my 52nd year, the awkward father of a nine month old boy, my first, I’m beginning to understand what he meant. More and more I feel isolated by the adult world of accumulated wisdoms and expertise, of knuckling down and taking responsibility and having opinions about things like politics and food. If I once had a cultural or national identity it is long gone, being unable to comply with the draconian rigours of what is and is not Australian, and who I am is increasingly determined by the day-to-day essentials of what I do as opposed to any grand narrative of self. I live in the tiny village of Gundaroo, about 30 minutes north of Canberra, having moved here seven years ago from Sydney. I’m a husband, a father, a cook, a son, a brother, a gardener, a man. But even these are just words. I know no more about being a father than I do about being a man. Which is perfectly OK, until an adult comes along with a wagging finger brandishing some garbage about the unexamined life not being worth living. To which I’d say the unlived life isn’t worth examining, and brandish back some garbage of my own. The aim of life is to live and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. Henry Miller.

Ashlee Poeppmann: 21 and a fresh graduate from Queensland University of Technology. I studied Creative Writing and Interactive Design. I’m currently working part time as an admin assistant but will someday go back to university for further study. Someday.

Carmel Purcell: I am a third year uni student studying Creative & Professional Writing and Entertainment Industries at Queensland University of Technology. In my spare time I like to watch American Horror Story or go out to lunch with friends and drink lattes and hot chocolates. I am passionate about food and travel and always change my mind about where I want to go. At the moment I am interested in travelling to Israel, Turkey and Morocco.

Ken Ward: I’m someone for whom writing is my Everest. A finished manuscript that delivers on the promise it makes, is the ultimate achievement.

 

What do you write and why?

Jane: I had always imagined myself to be a writer of no particular genre (both my current manuscripts are quite different), but apparently my publishers believe me to be a writer of dystopia. Who knew? For me, writing is simply about telling a damned good story, one that the reader can’t bear to put down. Within that story, the themes will be as various, and as hard-hitting, as I can make them.

Conan: I just answered part of this question. My main focus is children’s writing, in part because my own childhood was improved markedly by some of the greats: CS Lewis, Kenneth Graeme, Tolkien and even the wretched Enid Blyton. Children’s writing also demands you distil narrative, which is an appealing challenge. It’s all about story.

Elise: I love a good, flawed character engaged in conflict that challenges their integrity and fear. Genre-wise I write dystopia because humanity is terrifying; fantasy because reality is small; and literary fiction because I’m processing some stuff. Who isn’t. I also write academic articles because there’s too much knowledge to know and I want to know it all; and, let’s be honest, I write a lot of opinionated articles because too many people don’t know enough and yet think they do. There, I said it.

Sean: I love books. I love the idea of books, their look, that someone somewhere created this thing and there I am in their hands. As they are quite literally in mine. I love the private elegance of reading words that have been rolled into a shape that transports me intellectually and aesthetically and emotionally to spaces I can’t otherwise inhabit. And in some cases, don’t want to. Bukowski springs to mind. Oblomov. But I love them all the same. I love the craft of books, of stories. I love the grip a book can place on your soul, when it refuses to be put down. I write narrative fiction, with four novels and a collection of short stories gathering dust in a drawer or drive waiting to be buried or resurrected, who can say. The composition of a novel is an enormous task, and, like anything of value, hard work, but the rewards of writing well, of perfecting a sentence, a page, a chapter, are difficult to describe. I write to feel that thing, and to understand it, to bring it into other areas of my life, perhaps, that symmetry, capacity, that grip on your soul.

Ashlee: I write fiction, as I find that’s the easiest way for me to express my ideas. I also go through a lot of phases with themes. Lately I’ve written a lot about ghosts, wolves, my family and things I think about on public transport.

Carmel: I write for uni because I have to. I write a range of things for the cringe blog because it’s good fun and it’s important for me to document parts of myself and my experiences in stories. I also write corporate pieces because I am a Content Writing intern.

 Ken: I’m drawn to personal struggle. The moment when we go from being disconnected to connected. This journey towards realisation excites me.

 

The Necessary Delusion

I’ve written extensively these past few months about the various ways in which my last manuscript fell apart and the effect it’s had upon me as a writer, and person. In the end, where I fell over was a combination of insufficient planning and my rewriting skills not being up to scratch. More than 8 months since making the decision to step away from that project, I feel the coldness toward it only time and absence can bring.

However, for the 18 months I lived and breathed life in the fictional Northern Oregon township of Kennedy I was convinced of the immenseness of what I was working on. When I look back now, I can see there was a clear axis around which the helices of a double-helix spiralled.

Digital illustration of a dna

One helices was the writing process.  The practical act of writing, planning, revising, plotting, rewriting. Creating time in my day to execute the task of getting words from my imagination onto a computer screen.

Carried along the second helices, though, was the fuel that stoked the fires of my imagination. The flames began as small thoughts: Wouldn’t it be great if this novel was published? Moments of pure serendipity and hours of hard work were kindling to the fire: How will getting published change my life?

In no time at all a great inferno was burning: Imagine this book was really good, really important?

As the story’s characters and struggles became infused into the very core of my being, so did the fantastical notions I had about the impact I was about to make on the literary world. I can tell you know, at different times I imagined winning the Man-Booker Prize, being on Oprah’s Book of the Week club and even winning an Oscar for Best Screen Play for the movie adaptation of the novel. These were all intensely lived fantasies. Each left an emotional mark upon me and served to spur me on the write more, write quicker.

BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

In my head, I was on top of the world. As one part of me toiled away with the pragmatic business of producing a novel, the other part of me basked in all manner of glories that were soon to be bestowed upon because of the impact this book would have.

Yes, you can say it. It’s okay.

I was delusional. A part of me had lost the run of itself.

For a time as I stood in the smouldering embers of the novel when I had burnt it to the ground, I was quite hard on myself because of how far I had let myself go.

But now, I’m softening. Why?

I think a writer or an artist, any creative soul, needs a healthy dose of delusion to help fan the flames of inspiration and motivation. I’ll keep the ‘we’ out of this as I don’t want to be overly prescriptive, and instead stick to the ‘I’ of this matter.

I need to believe my story is fresh and original – only I can tell this story in this way, no one else. I need to believe I’m expressing an idea that speaks to people about some facet of humanity they can understand. I need to believe that some greater good will come to me as a result of all the time, effort and passion I will pour into this project.

I’m learning how to manage this idea of ‘greater good’ so that my delusions remain healthy and in check. Greater good is writing for my own pleasure. It’s about being grateful for the sense of purpose expressing myself through writing brings to my life. And, how being a writer connects me to likeminded souls.

I’ve been working on my latest novel since January. What’s helping keep my emotions and expectations in check is a mantra designed to quell the rampant demands of my writerly delusions:

I’m writing for my own pleasure, for the joy it brings me and how being a writer gives me the courage to live more intensely.

Everything above and beyond this is a bonus.

I still have desires to be published, to see my stories on the shelves of books stores everywhere (or anywhere!). I’ve reigned in thoughts of international literary awards and Hollywood fame.  Now, though, I keep my focus on the work I do each day. Page by page, scene by scene, toward the completion of a complete manuscript. And the resolution to the puzzle this story poses me.

From there, well, let’s wait and see.

Being a writer: what do you need to make it happen?

I once heard someone say, ‘We would never talk to another person the way we talk to ourselves.’ As writers our self-talk can be highly critical and extremely biting:tumblr_mbffz2ntyg1rtheg4o1_400-323x450

‘This is terrible.’

‘I’ve written nothing today.’

‘I’ll never finish this.’

‘I’m a failure.’

While we’re not always gentle with ourselves, sometimes the gloves need to come off. There’s a state of agitation that exists between satisfaction and dissatisfaction where creativity and motivation are born: the constant arm wrestle between low and high pressure weather systems that vomit thunder and spit lightning.

In these moments we can be at our very best and at our very worst – the line can be very thin. It’s not easy to be both Good Cop and Bad Cop to the vulnerable and sometimes insecure writer inside of us. As I battled, knee-deep, through the detritus of rejection and seeming failure during the latter part of last year I found my only companion was Bad Cop. It wasn’t long before his tired cynicism began to sound like Truth.

And just as I felt the vestiges of one novel and eighteen-months of work slip through my fingers, I experienced a moment of quiet calm. Soon though, whispers of doubt grew louder and seeds of undoing sprouted stems. It was as I resisted this return to negativity that a question emerged from the ether of my subconscious: What do I need to write?

A challenge and carrot. A push and a pull. In the tug-of-war between Good Cop and Bad Cop, the little agitated atoms within me were shaken into a state of heated friction and proposed a way forward.

It didn’t take me long to come up with the three core things I needed to enable me to write and remain committed to my practice of writing on a regular basis:pencil-writing-ftr

 

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Energy

 

  1. Space

Need:    Somewhere I can go where it’s conducive to be a writer and to write.

Action:  I converted the spare room in my house into a writer’s den. I moved in my book cases and stacks of CDs. My notes and plot structures adorn the walls. I’m cocooned in my craft and my stories and my characters.

Result:  I’m writing more regularly, more spontaneously and I’m really enjoying how and what I’m creating.

 

  1. Time

Need:    To carve out thirty, sixty or more minutes per day (or at least five days a week) to write.

Action:  I’m eating more lasagne. I’ve found the 40 minutes while the dish is on the oven a great time to work on some new scenes. On the nights where I’m not eating lasagne it’s either the second I get home from work (thirty minutes of power writing leaves me free to relax for the rest of the evening) or just after a scalding hot shower (the ideas I have in the shower never cease to amaze me).

Result:  Slowly but surely the first draft of my new project is coming together. I’m making steady progress which is very satisfying and keeps Bad Cop at bay.

 

  1. Energy

Need:    To not be fatigued, hungry or tired when I sit down to write. To have the reserves to bring passion and intensity and clarity to my writing.

Action:  Eat better throughout the day. A better breakfast. A good lunch. Some fruit. Something in the afternoon before I leave work. A good dinner when I get home. Exercise – basketball mid-week, football on the weekends. Get a good night’s sleep.

And when I’m not writing, don’t attack myself for not writing. If I’m going to chill out and watch a movie or spend time with a loved one or friend, enjoy that as much as I can. No guilt. No regrets.

Result:  I’m able to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. My writing desk is at a height where I can comfortably stand and type – so I do. And this allows me to bring a lot of movement and dynamism to how write. I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing.

 

This is the prescription that’s helping me stay on the edge and be sharp in my practice. It’s going to be different for everyone. Each of us will have different elements we’ll need to bring to the table to make our writing work for us. So there’s no one size fits all approach here.

But by starting with one simple and direct question, you’ll be amazed, given application, patience and dedication, where it will lead you. Here’s the challenge:

What do you need to write?

 

Ken Ward

 

Body Image credit: morethanflesh / http://www.lydiamccall.com/heal-negative-body-image/

Sam Simon: A Writer’s Life (Taxi, The Simpsons and so much more)

Up until last week, thesimpsons credits reference Sam Simon was nothing more to me than a name on the credits rolls of The Simpsons. I knew nothing of the man, his life, his achievements, and his role as co-creator on one of the greatest animated series ever. Without The Simpsons, I never would have met my wife and my life would be unimaginably different (not for the better).

sam simon

Sam Simon died on 8th March after a battle with cancer, aged 49. It was only seeing his name alongside The Simpsons in online headlines made me stop and take notice. And having taken notice, his story, his life as a writer and producer offers a lot to inspire.

 

Simon wamighty mouses always a skilled and inventive when it came to drawing. Aged 24, after years of sketching comic strips for the San Francisco Chronicle, he got his first writing credit on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse soon followed by Heckle & Jeckle and Fat Albert. ‘What I learned, honestly, that was so valuable was…they made me a writer. They said we want you to write scripts.’

Over the next couple of years he worked on a number of shows that were either going nowhere or seemed to be leading him nowhere. The measure of the man came in 1982 when he submitted a script on spec to the TV show Taxi (starring Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufmann).

taxi

‘I wrote a script and I mailed it in…I decided as long as I’m writing TV I should write something I’m not embarrassed about.’

How Simon forged a path for himself based on talent, desire and integrity, reminded me of @elise_janes recent post on The Cringe where she got real about shoulda, coulda, woulda and how bullshit that all is – we need to go after what we want.

These lessons and examples are all around us: people who achieve through a willingness to work hard with no guarantee of a return, no guarantee of acknowledgement or success. Those who commit themselves to following through on their creative endeavour, because it matters. Maybe you know someone like this. Maybe this is who are working hard to become. I know I am.

Sam Simon left us writers and creators with three tips. In his own words, this is ‘the best advice ever’:

  1. Story above all
  2. Don’t be afraid of the quiet moments
  3. Love your characters

I’ll give the last word to The Simpsons themselves. On the most recent show, which aired in the US on Sunday 15th March, they ended the episode with a simple and touching tribute:

thank you

 

Ken Ward

 

(Quotes sourced from Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, ‘Episode 389 – Sam Simon’, May 16, 2013)

Work Habits of Successful Writers

If you’re an emerging writer you’re probably still squeezing in your scribblings at some inconvenient and uncooperative time of day, like 4am before you have to get ready for work, or in the park at lunch (if you can get away from your desk), or on the train commute home. You probably have to set aside whole evenings two weeks in advance, hoping that your plans won’t be thwarted by an impromptu dinner guest or a forgotten birthday party.

And this is good, because as E.B. White once said if you don’t write when circumstances suck, you’ll never write at all. I’m paraphrasing.

Then every few months you find yourself with an entire day at your astonished disposal. Maybe even two in a row. Two?! At first you stand in shock, raking your memory for any possible forgotten commitments. But then you realise that the washing is done, the bills are paid, the kids/spouse/parents/roommates are nowhere to be seen, the blank page in your diary really is a blank page and you well up with joy.

Now what? How do you transmute all that free time into a productive writing spree? Because, for the love of all things, don’t let a single second go to waste.

In preparation for that day, and for the gilded future in which writing is what you do for a living, peruse the daily habits of some people who really know what they’re doing.

 

Maya Angelou

amd-angelou-jpg“I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them — fifty acceptable pages — it’s not too bad.”

and later in her life…

“I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.
I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind. I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.” So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.
I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!”
But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.”

 

Simone de Beauvoir

“I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.”
“If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.”

 

Don De Lillo

“I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of Borges, a great picture sent to me by the Irish writer Colm Tóín. The face of Borges against a dark background — Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture. I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked — but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else. So I’ve tried to make him my guide out of lethargy and drift, into the otherworld of magic, art, and divination.”

 

William Gibson

“When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap.”

 

Ernest Hemingway

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

 

Jack Kerouac

“The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace.”

 

Stephen King

stephen-king-writing-tips“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book—something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh. On some days those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.”

 

Henry Miller

“MORNINGS:
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.
AFTERNOONS:
Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.
EVENINGS:
See friends. Read in cafés.
Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.
Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.
Paint if empty or tired.
Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.
Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.”

 

Haruki Murakami

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

 

Anaïs Nin

“I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.”

 

Susan Sontag

“Starting tomorrow — if not today:
I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)
I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)
I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)”

 

Anthony Trollope

“Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”
Every day for years he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years.
from Daily Routines

 

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt-Vonnegut-260x300“I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies.”

 

 

Elise Janes

Writing is Work (and other things you need to get over)

The-joy-of-writing-1

Let’s get down to it. If you want to be a writer chances are you’ve wanted to be a writer since you read your first book/poem/play (probably a book, not many infants learn their ABC’s with Samuel Beckett).

Actually, revise that. You’ve probably wanted to be a writer since you experienced your first really good story, you know, the moment when all the hairs on your arms stood up, and you forgot where you were and who was with you, and you got the feeling that there was a lot more to this grand old life than most people realised.

And chances are that this feeling never left you. In fact as you chose your subjects at school and went on to study medicine and then became a doctor and settled down and had kids and bought a house and took out the rubbish bins and made dinner at night, that feeling followed you everywhere. It never went away.

Most people will never write so much as a tweet in their whole lives and still manage to live an extremely satisfied existence. But that’s not you. And whether or not you come to it late in life after a long career in something else, or you wrote your first play when you were five and never stopped, there are some things that you will need to get over in order to make your writing dream a reality.

  1. Yourself

The first thing to die must be your own insecurities. Easier said than done. And this is something you will have to battle every day for the rest of your writing career, because unless you have the unshakeable ego of, say, Napoleon Bonaparte, those doubts will niggle you every waking moment.

The thing is if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will. Don’t apologise for wanting to be a writer. Don’t apologise for thinking that you can be a writer. Don’t mumble when people ask you what you’re working on. If they don’t get it, who cares. You get it. That’s all that matters.

  1. Other people

Just to be clear, no one is going to fully understand your work except you. No one is going to care about your work like you do. When people ask how your weekend was and you say “So busy, I wrote 10 000 words, stayed up all night, so exhausted.” Not only will they mentally roll their eyes, they will immediately compare your sitting on your butt in front of a computer screen all weekend to the fact that they had to take their 8yo to three different birthday parties, their 5yo to soccer, have ten people over for dinner, walk the dog, mow the lawn, get root canal and paint the house.

They don’t give a shit and they probably never will. In fact many of them will resent you for having the courage to try and do something creative. Don’t look for encouragement in others, even in your close friends and family, because many of them will just not get it. And that’s the way it is.

  1. Time

Writing is one of the most time-consuming activities in the known universe. Even if you write 3 000 words a day (which takes most people about 5-6 hours), it will take you thirty days straight to write a 90 000 word manuscript. That’s if you literally do nothing else for a whole month. Add to that full-time work, family, weddings, funerals, sickness, appointments, birthday parties, holidays, and actually having a life (so maybe 1 hour of writing a day if you’re lucky) and it will take you around six to eight months. Add to that research, frequent slow periods, and some moments of despair/writer’s block/questioning the meaning of life, you’re looking at twelve months. Absolute minimum. For a first draft. Then comes the rewrite, editing, reworking, burning it in the backyard and starting all over again, blah blah bah.

The point is it requires serious dedication and deliberate effort to even get a first draft on paper. It will require you to stay home when everyone else is going out. You will have to miss birthdays, dinners, events, holidays, usually to the great offence of everyone around you. No one will understand because the deadline is self-directed, and people rarely respect a self-directed deadline. But if you want to write, you have to actually write. And that takes real time.

  1. Where you came from

Some people are born into artistic families. Most people aren’t. Some people are born into culturally fortunate locations where inspiration and opportunities and contacts abound. Most people aren’t. Some people get recognised in their formative years and get useful legs-up in the creative world. Most people aren’t. These are things you have little control over. But it doesn’t mean they have to stay that way.

If you need to move to a more conducive artistic environment, then do it. If you need to change who you hang around so you can get inspired, then do it. If you need to remodel so you have a useful writing space, then do it. If you need to change jobs, degrees or fields of study in order to get the input you need, then do it. Most people don’t. But you should.

  1. IMG_0512Conventions

The rules state that you have to go to school then go to uni then get a job so you have money to buy a car, get married, buy a house, have a family, go on family holidays, invest in superannuation and retire.

Thing is, you don’t.

Spending two years of your life writing a novel goes against all rational conventions. Do it anyway. You may have to delay other things in your life to get it done. Do it anyway. You may decide that you need to drop out of uni, postpone a life event, or turn down a great job to get done. Do it anyway.

Just don’t get to the end of your life never having tried.

  1. Work

Most writers will actually have to work for money for a long time before they are able to live off their writing. Some writers will never live off their writing. Work will always get in the way. You need to manage it. If you need to get a different job so that you have more time/energy/brain space to write, then do it.

Writing is work. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a fun idea to kill some time. It’s not a phase. It’s not a therapeutic exercise. It’s damn hard work and it’s no less worthy of respect than any other job.

  1. Expectations

If you write always worrying about what other people will think about this or that then you will never put a word on paper.

In order to be true to your genre, characters, story, whatever, you may need to write graphic sex scenes, violence, abuse, morally shocking behavior, drugs, mental and physical illnesses, gosh you may even have to use a four-letter word or two.

Yes, your granny might be offended. Or your colleagues/parents/friends/family. Know what? Too bad. Hey, everyone watches Game of Thrones. Even if they say they don’t.

  1. Security

There may come a time when you decide you need to spend a solid three months on your book. You may need to take unpaid leave. You may even need to quit your job. Again, no one else will understand or care. They will tell you that you’re crazy because a promotion is just around the corner, or that you’re leaving the team in the lurch, or that certain projects won’t happen if you’re not there. In the end, this is your life and your future, not theirs. Work out which one matters most.

  1. Genre

So when you decided to be a writer you thought you would be the next James Joyce. Then you started writing and you realised that all you wanted to write about was guns and car chases. Does that make you a second-rate writer? HELL. NO.

Write what you want to write. Don’t write to win the Booker prize or the Nobel prize or to be the next J.K. Rowling. There are plenty of authors out there who are writing from ambition and I can guarantee that deep down they know they’re not being honest with themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our most lauded literary minds will lie on their deathbeds wishing they had created the next James Bond instead of ten award-winning lyrical masterpieces.

  1. Other writers

The great thing about finally owning up to your dirty little secret is that you will start to find some like-minded people. You will find workshops, seminars, competitions, writing groups, writing centres, literary fetsivals. You will find beta readers and crit partners and people who just love sharing your work and talking about it. And then you will also find people who are just plain rude or ridiculously elitist or want nothing to do with anyone else because they are the ultimate lone wolf.

In the end, writing, like any creative pursuit, is a small and competitive field and some people are in it to win and don’t care about anything else. They will resent your success and then smugly rub their success in your face. They will use you for a profile boost and then clamber over you up the literary social ladder. So find the good ones and don’t let them go. The rest? Forget them.

  1. What you could have been

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. People tell me I could have been a singer. I could have been a performer. I could have been a great music director. I could have been a great educator. I could have been a principal. I could have been an actress. I could have been an academic. That’s all great. But I have only one life. And I’m at least going to try to do what I really want to do.

And you should too.

 

Elise Janes

So you have this idea, this amazing idea

coolgrassnaturewritingvintagelovely-b141dfdd83bf6d3a1af736d1d5f680f1_hIt’s the first thing you think about when you wake in the morning. It’s the last thing you think about when you’re falling asleep at night.

You find yourself (lose yourself?) thinking about it in the lift between work meetings. Even in those most intimate moments, the ones in the bedroom with your partner, there it is, the idea, it just won’t leave you alone. Worse, it’s not an idea for a holiday or some home renovations. It’s an idea for a nonfiction book. And it’s an excellent idea, you know that, because it makes your gut ache as though you’re in love – there are times when you feel drunk because of it.

So you put a plan into action. You start writing notes. You visit the library. You even make phone calls and arrange to meet people.

Now this whole book thing is becoming more exciting than ever.

Teasingly, you write a creative essay for a literary journal, which causes a bunch of emails to come your way – there are people who love your nonfiction project so much they want to share information with you.

You begin to think that maybe you should approach some agents and publishers. But how to do that without embarrassing yourself? On the internet you find what appears to be a reputable site about how to prepare a kick-arse non-fiction book proposal, and you spend your evenings and weekends getting a package together. But still you’re not quite sure. Am I really ready for this? That’s your question.

You might be ready. You might not be. Which is okay, because there are thousands of other non-fiction writers out there just like you (except that’s a thought that gives you shivers – all that competition.)

Thankfully, courtesy of the ACT Writers Centre and the Australia Council for the Arts, there’s a program called HARDCOPY.

According to the ACT Writers Centre, HARDCOPY is a professional development program that builds the capacities, resources and aptitudes committed emerging Australian writers need to reach their potential. By creating an environment that is educative, vigorous and nurturing, the program: helps writers develop their projects towards full-length-manuscript status; significantly increases industry knowledge; facilitates relationships between writers and literary professionals; and breaks down the barriers of location and geography.

Last year’s focus was fiction; this year’s is nonfiction. Which pleases you no end.

What actually happens in HARDCOPY?

There are three main stages. The first, Towards the Best MS, involves the 30 participating writers – they can be from anywhere in Australia – attending a three-day project/manuscript development masterclass in May 2015 in Canberra with professional editor Nadine Davidoff. Writers will discover how to put together best-practice non-fiction book proposals, but also learn about how prose works, especially in terms of illuminating a project’s themes to engage readers.

HARDCOPY+tag_CMYK_workingThe selection panel for the first round is Paul Daley (journalist and author of Beersheba: A Journey Through Australia’s Forgotten War, MUP 2009, Canberra, New South 2013, and the novel Challenge, MUP 2014); Dr Jen Webb (University of Canberra, co-editor of Axon: Creative Explorations, and, with Tony Schirato, author of the Sage book series Understanding Contemporary Culture); Dr Frank Bongiorno (Australian National University, author of The Sex Life of Australians, Black Inc, 2012), and Biff Ward (author of In My Mother’s Hands, Allen & Unwin 2014, which has been long-listed for the 2015 Stellar Prize).

HARDCOPY participants then return to their home states and territories to progress their projects/manuscripts.

All writers come back to Canberra in September to attend Intro2Industry, which involves three days of presentations and seminars that cover all the ‘industry’ side of nonfiction writing: the role of agents; what publishers are looking for; future directions for the book as a concept; navigating the minefield of contracts; and the importance of using social media and other elements of the online environment to engage with readers. Intro2Industry also includes panels with prominent, published non-fiction writers, who will discuss what they wished they knew before they were published, and also other topics such as how to give presentations that engage audiences.

HARDCOPY participants then apply to the final stage, which will give ten the opportunity to meet with agents and publishers to gain industry-level feedback. Highly regarded publishing professional Mary Cunnane will select this final round of participants. The purpose of this final session, called Going Public and to be held in November, 2015, is not about achieving publication per se, but enabling writers to hear what agents and publishers think of the proposals submitted.

In short, if you’re a non-fiction writer with an idea that just won’t go away, it’s an opportunity like no other.

 

Applications close Friday 13 March 2015.

For more information, visit the ACT Writers Centre at http://actwritersblog.com/2015/02/18/2015-hardcopy-development-program-applications-open/. HARDCOPY is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and is funded by the Australia Council for the Arts.

 

Nigel Featherstone

 

Nigel Featherstone’s latest work is the novella The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014). He is a longstanding freelance writer for Fairfax Media and other publications, and, on a contract basis, is currently assisting the ACT Writers Centre with the delivery of HARDCOPY. For more information about Nigel, visit www.opentopublic.com.au