20 December 2011

Bits and Bobs: NaNo Numbers, My Scene Layout and a Kiwi Christmas

First, I forgot to comment last time on the NaNoWriMo wrap up stats. It was a boost to my confidence to find out that the average word count per writer was only 12,000, and only 14% of participants got to 50,000. Suddenly my 40,000 seems pretty good. So take heart, fellow NaNa-not-quite-winners, we still did well!

It's interesting looking at their map - it's mainly only English speaking countries, with basically no-one from Asia, Africa or South America. It would be cool to see NaNoWriMo grow into other languages in the future, don't you think?


After my last post about writing on my scenes on notecards, I laid them out on the floor to see how many scenes are in each act. And here's how it's playing out so far...

So Act 3 needs a little work! And Act 1 is only supposed to be 1/4 of the total, so that speaks my need to build in more plot complications in the middle. It will be interesting (for me anyway!) to see how this looks when I'm done.


And for my followers in the northern hemisphere, here's a fun little video which illustrates what it's like to enjoy Christmas in this part of the world.

Surf and sand by day... Christmas lights by night!

The only downside is that you have to be seen in your swimming attire after eating all the yummy seasonal food!

I will probably take a break from posting over this period, so Merry Christmas everyone! Remember the things that matter.

13 December 2011

NaNoWriMo Follow Up: Taking Stock

Well, I should have written nearly 10,000 words this month if I'm to get to 20k... but I have written *cough* 1,100 *cough*. It's been a mix of recovering from sickness, catching up on housework and gardening, and booking some more things for a big trip we're taking next year. I have been thinking about the novel, just taking a break from writing like a mad woman.

What I have done, which I've never done before, is note down every scene on note cards. Well actually they're a mix of memo cube paper and little rectangles I tore up when I ran out. I've read on several writer blogs that this helps with plotting and structure.

I ended up with 52, which I found pleasing in a geeky sort of way, because that's the same as a deck of cards. It also means that if I write an average of about 1,000 words per scene, and I want to finish with about 80,000 words, that I am well over half-way. I still only have 41,000 words, but there are still quite a few scenes in note form.

What I can do now is lay them out and try to see how they fit into the three act (four part) structure, and see where the main gaps are. I've noted whose POV each scene is in, so I can see if one of the characters is getting too much air time. And when I'm trying to figure out the order of things, I can physically move them around as I ponder without having to cut and paste the actual words.

It also meant finally reading through everything I've done, which I didn't have time to do during NaNo. And I like most of it, which is good :-) My hope is that one day someone else likes it too.

I still have a few key plot elements to uncover (Stephen Kings "fossils") which should help to make up at least half the remaining scenes. I had three new scenes burst into mind (which made up the 1,100) after I'd turned the light out the other night, so I know the spark is still there. It would be so easy to keep resting from it, now that I'm probably past the most 'fun' parts of crafting the book. But I'll persevere and drive myself forward, because I know I can. The fear is that I won't do justice to my idea, that the scenes I've written that I love, and I'm pretty sure are good, will be balanced with mediocrity or worse. Time will tell I suppose... onward!

Do you use any techniques to help plan or chart your novels? What works for you? Will you finish your NaNo novel?

09 December 2011

Critiques: Vital Information or Ego Crushers?

Yesterday Angela James (editor at Carina Press), posted her regular edit report tweets, which you can read here. During the tweets, someone asked Angela whether the rejectees would see any of the comments, and she replied in the negative, stating that authors' egos are too fragile for such frank comments.

During the night I received my form rejection from Carina for my previous MS. Frankly I don't know why they bother with four paragraphs. It's a form rejection, so there's little point reading it. I have to say I disagree with not including any feedback, particularly as Carina has a freelance editor read it and make comments. It's a golden opportunity to receive some insight into my areas for improvement.

I found myself combing back through the edit report, trying to figure out which comments might apply to me. I don't think they're too harsh, and I'd love to know which ones are mine, if any were. I'd long given up hope of the novel seeing the light of day, but it would have been nice to know what the editor thought of it.

The best rejection I ever got was on a full, for my first completed MS (I have two). In a few brief sentences it told me I had problems with pacing and character development, but that I had a strong voice and feel for the genre. (It was a little more specific than that.) At the time I struggled to understand, but now I can clearly see what the agent was telling me, and as I began to understand it pushed me to develop in those areas.

I know that with most rejections agents don't have time to make any comments. However my worst rejection came this year - a form on a full. I'd hoped for even a little personalisation. And the form had the standard paragraphs about subjectivity and fit, etc. I wish they would just say "this is a form rejection" and leave it at that. When you don't know if it's a form, you pore over the sentences, looking for something that seems relevant to you, before the final realisation kicks in. If no actual feedback is to be given, I think the rejection should be as brief as possible. Otherwise there's the danger that we try to read something meaningful into those painful paragraphs.

What about you? Would you like to receive any and all feedback, regardless of how harsh it seems? Do you appreciate the multi-paragraph form letters agents send?

05 December 2011

A Little Diversion: See which Ancient Hero you are

I love quizzes, particularly when they give me an answer which is fun yet accurate. This is a quick little quiz based on Greek mythology. Here's my result:

See which Ancient Greek Hero you are, and share your result :-)

01 December 2011

The End of NaNoWriMo: No Cigar This Time Around

Well, it's over. No more feeling that niggling constant pressure to keep up with the 1,667 words. No more mounting inadequacy as I watched the gap between the goal and my progress yawn wider apart. And now, more time to ponder my story rather than having to frantically plow forward.

Shortly after I posted my week 3 update, I decided I would try to reach 40,000 rather than 50, and even so it was a bit of a stretch for me given my illness. This was still a great personal achievement, given that I thought 30,000 was what I'd probably get to at the start of the month. I'm also proud of the fact that I didn't just keep writing drivel for the sake of it. I want to keep most of what I've done. I worked seriously on scenes that move my characters and the plot forward.

I worried that I'd run out of steam because of not getting ideas fast enough, but that didn't happen. It might have happened if I had managed the time to get nearer 50,000, but as it was I always had something to write every time I sat in front of my laptop. Necessity forced me to think of more 'what ifs' and 'when thens', at a faster pace than I normally would. And there's still a lot of thinking, planning and writing to do. I'm only half way through the word count for the book, and I didn't succeed in writing chronologically either, so it's a case of filling in the blanks and discovering more about my minor characters and plots. I already have lots of questions and plot problems I need to solve. I'd like to think I can manage another 40,000 in December to have a finished draft by the end of the year, but I think 20,000 is a more realistic goal. The second half is always the hardest for me.

While I registered with the official site, I didn't use many of the tools. I didn't use the forums, but I did read the pep talk emails and watch some of the videos in order to feel some solidarity. Many bloggers I follow cheered me on (whether they knew it or not) and I was heartened when some revealed they weren't keeping up, either. The best part of the official site for me was updating my word count and seeing the graph inch closer to the goal. I smiled last night when it told me I had to write an average of 9,600 words to finish on time.

My actual average was 1,344, but if you take out the days when I didn't write at all, it was 1,493. Not too shabby, especially prior to this last week.

If you NaNo'd, how'd you do?

Week 4 summary:

Day 25: 0
Day 26: 2707
Day 27: 626
Day 28: 850
Day 29: 177
Day 30: 964

Total word count (MS Word): 40,157
Total word count (NaNoWriMo verified): 40,331

And here's the official stats:

24 November 2011

NaNoWriMo: Week 3 - The Dreaded Lurgy

It's kind of ironic that Lindsey's week 3 pep talk inferred sickness might slow us WriMos down. As I sit here, I frequently pause to cough my guts out and soak several tissues. I haven't slept properly in over a week, wheezing through the night, and it's all I can do to keep my eyes open at work.

So how is NaNo going? Well I haven't caught up, as you might expect. I'm toiling on, accepting the fact that I won't 'win' but I will have made significant progress. 40k, which I'm confident I'll get to, is half the length my novel should be.

There are still big plot and character gaps, but I have made quite good progress on new scenes for the main romantic plot arc. I still have parts I can flesh out before I have to do more real thinking ;-) I was hoping to do said thinking on the weekend but I'm not getting any better, so long naps and trashy TV might be the order of the day around other commitments.

Last night I got several good ideas/phrases in my head just as I was dropping off the sleep, and of course my foggy head couldn't remember them today (just mediocre remnants of them). I had a notebook next to my bed and everything, but I just couldn't summon the will to move or turn a light on. If I ever am a full-time writer, I think I'll be quite productive just after lights-out, when I don't have to worry about getting up for work. That and early evening, when I've told my brain it has to focus on making dinner and other chores... so it bursts into creative life.

Enough rambling from me - shower and to bed! I hope all the fellow WriMos out there are in a healthier state!

Week 3 Summary:

Day 16: 1778
Day 17: 1723
Day 18: 860
Day 19: 0
Day 20: 2541
Day 21: 1401
Day 22: 2030
Day 23: 1006
Day 24: 792

Total: 34,833
Target: 40,000

15 November 2011

NaNoWriMo: Week 2 - The Plot Thickens...

... but not as much as I'd like. After one day of having zero time to write, and another of limited time, I'm a little behind! And I'm not sure if I can keep up the pace without further time to contemplate the plot and characters. I'm excited about some of the scenes that have dropped into my head, but I need a lot more. We shall see how much further behind I fall. I did always think 50,000 words was a trifle optimistic. It does feel like the half way mark of a marathon.

And that's all for now!

Day 8 - 1461 words
Day 9 - 1851 words
Day 10 - 1554 words
Day 11 - 0 words
Day 12 - 2075 words
Day 13 - 1895 words
Day 14 - 844 words
Day 15 - 1832 words

Total - 22,702 words
Target - 25,000

07 November 2011

NaNoWriMo: Week 1

*comes up for air*

Yeah, that's what it feels like! How is everyone else doing in the trenches? I have to admit I am feeling somewhat overwhelmed, but still trying to keep up. Whether I keep up for the month is still a huge question mark. Even if I finish with the 30,000 I originally talked about, I'll have achieved a lot more than I would have otherwise.

My NaNo effort started poorly. On day 1, something else came up that I had to attend to with my husband, so not a word was written. I tried to catch up on day 2, but I just fell short of one daily word count. By day 5, the mounting shortfall had me quite uncomfortable, so over the weekend I sort of cheated by pulling in some scenes (or scene ideas, which I then wrote) that I thought of prior to November. Even that didn't catch me up. Today I wrote 2,500 words, so I'm just 500 shy of the target. Another 2,000 tomorrow and I'll be there - but today I already had quite strong ideas about what I wanted to write in an important scene. I have probably five other scenes like that in my head... and then what will I do? *wrings hands*

The problem is that scenes generally occur to me organically, and not in order. And trying to rush the process like this might be counter-intuitive. If I run out of ideas, I won't be able to keep going. As I predicted, writing consecutively (chronologically) is also a struggle. I banged out chapter 1, because I already had a pretty good idea of what that needed to be, but then chapter 2 descended into scrappy notes and character brainstorms. I know I need to keep working on developing the story including minor storylines, but for now I need to write the scenes I know exist and hope the intervening chapters come to me (or that I get time to think through them properly).

All the advice I'm reading says, "Don't try to make it good, don't edit, don't research, don't try to form a proper book - go back later and fix it". I'm realising this flies in the face of my instincts... I want to make my sentences or word choice correct from the beginning, and I hate leaving paragraphs that I know won't make the cut later. For now they have to stay, so that they can lead into the next thing. I also can't really "free-write" as such... I do have to have some idea of what a scene will achieve before I start. Perhaps that will come as I get more desperate towards the end!

So, another three weeks. This seems like madness, but it's a madness I very badly want to abide by so that I can achieve something special. I already have those nagging doubts (maybe this isn't special at all, and it only has 20,000 words in it), but I need to persevere just in case there's a real book in this idea. This whole writing thing does seem incongruous sometimes.

Week 1 Summary:

Day 1 - 0 words
Day 2 - 2407 words
Day 3 - 1454 words
Day 4 - 1384 words
Day 5 - 1019 words
Day 6 - 2411 words
Day 7 - 2515 words

Total = 11,190
Target = 11,669

31 October 2011

It's The Final Countdown

Image: Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
How is everybody doing this NaNoWriMo Eve? What sort of tricks are you planning so you can treat yourself later? ;-)

As for me, I had a lovely relaxing weekend away, during which I did some research and a little bit of plotting, but mainly just let my brain rest to prepare for the onslaught. I feel excited, listless, a little overwhelmed.

Today I need to assemble my thousands of words of notes and scene snippets into some kind of order, and finalise a structure to work to based on what I've learnt about plotting. I'm looking forward to further fleshing out the characters' families, motivations and conflicts as I write. Here's hoping the muse keeps up with the pace, filling in the plot holes with fantastic ideas as I go... wishful thinking? We shall see.

So the NaNo regime will require some discipline during my evening/weekend hours...

  • Very little or no reading blogs
  • Hardly any tweeting unrelated to NaNo
  • Blog posting probably only related to NaNo progress, unless something else spontaneously occurs to me
  • No perusing silly videos, daily deals, surveys, competitions, and other random stuff on the internet
  • No 'unscheduled' TV viewing
  • Reading time limited to train commute

What are you sacrificing for NaNo time? Do you feel ready?

P.S. Can you read that subject line without getting this song stuck in your head for hours?

26 October 2011

What's In A Name?

I'm continuing to shape the characters and their arcs for my historical romance, and I'm itching to get started on proper drafting on November 1. I still don't think I'll have a full outline by then, because I get a lot of my ideas as I write. I'm just going to have to take a leap of faith that I can generate enough ideas during the month to see me through.

One thing I do want to have sorted though, are the main characters names (at the very least). With some stories, the characters come to me with their names. Not so with this one. When I first started sketching out scenes, I did have a tentative name for the heroine, but her character has morphed so much since then the name no longer fits. I have toyed briefly with a couple of names for the hero, but nothing has stuck. So in my notes they are mainly just "hero" and "heroine"... which is, frankly, lame. I want the names to reflect who they are (to me, anyway), and for minor characters I'd love to be clever with symbolic names or sounds which illustrate their personalities.

I'd like to believe I'll know the protagonists' names when I see them, so the plan is to expose myself to as many period-appropriate names as possible, in the hope a first name-last name combo with magically stick. There are some helpful resources for first names and last names, and this site is a bit of fun. I've started to make lists, but I think it'll be a few more days before I have time to evaluate my favourites. I can't see myself plunging into the draft without them, so fingers crossed I work it out soon!

How far could you get through a MS without names for principal characters? At what point does the name become part of the character? What are some of your favourite names in literature?

19 October 2011

Planning Progress

Image: Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Planning for NaNoWriMo is progressing, somewhat. I have figured out a lot about the personalities of my two main characters, and I have a pretty good idea of how their relationship grows and changes throughout the story. My hero's motivations, stumbling blocks and growth are clear in my mind, my heroine's less so. I have a fair idea of the setting, though I've only just started researching beautiful English tourism websites and I'm going to enjoy finding out a lot more. I will also need to research a lot more around the little historical details that will add realism, and possibly spark plot ideas.

Speaking of plot, this is the main grey area at present. While I know where my characters need to get to, I'm a bit stuck in giving them things to do. I know this will come, but pushing it to come over 50,000 words in one month is a little daunting. I'm keen to have little (and a few large) secrets revealed, which surely do require some planning? The other main gaps right now are most of the minor characters. That, and names. But I think I'll write another post about that later.

However, I am pushing fear aside and gearing up mentally for NaNo. See the participant's logo in my sidebar? :-) I have the bare bones of several scenes written - those that just wouldn't leave me alone and I'm excited about. The challenge for me is the discipline to write all the scenes chronologically, without cheating and rushing through to the climactic scenes I love to write.

What will be the biggest challenge for you during NaNo? (apart from time constraints, obviously!)

13 October 2011

Considering NaNoWriMo

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Everyone is talking about NaNaWriMo. For once I'm at a place with an MS (i.e. in the very early stages) where I might benefit from taking part. As you can see by the little counter on the right, I'm nearly 5,000 words into my new historical novel, with those words being a mix of scenes and outlined chapters from throughout the book (though mainly the first half). I could use some motivation and support to get into the nitty-gritty and get the thing really going.

I'm a little worried about having to be quite so consistent though, as I'm really more of a pantser. Sometimes I'll write like a crazy woman as scenes roll through my brain uninterrupted, but other times I'll need a few days or a week to mull over particular plot arcs or characters. The time away is required for the next bolt of inspiration to strike.

Before November 1 I'm going to attempt to do a more thorough outline, so that I have some kind of roadmap. The problem is that most of the time I get my ideas for future scenes as I'm writing, or in the mulling time afterwards. Plus sometimes when I'm outlining I can't resist writing scenes, and then I have to go back afterwards and fill in the gaps. Being able to say what happens throughout the whole book before I do any proper sequential writing is unlikely. It would be nice if my process could work that way, but I can't really see it working.

So I don't think I'll get near the 50k, but maybe 30k will be a good goal for me. 30k for 3 months and I'll have a finished draft. 

Apparently the next step is to register at the official site... but I'm not sure if that will be counter-productive, as the forums may just turn out to be a distraction? And I might feel like an under-achiever when I don't crack the 50k. If you've done it before, would you recommend registering? Have you "won"? Did you end up finishing and/or submitting the novel?

09 October 2011

A Turning Point

I took a walk this afternoon at the far end of the neighbourhood and I took these shots.

It's funny, looking at them now, it almost seems like a totally different day - look at those heavy clouds as against the beautiful blue sky. But all I did was turn less than 180 degrees.

I'm at a turning point with my writing too. Totally I sent off the last query for my women's fiction MS. I am satisfied that I have queried widely enough, and I'm ready to move on.

So, what to move on to? I have a couple of dozen story ideas or scenes saved, which span many genres. There's about five that are clammering for my attention, and then one that's sticking in my head the most at the moment is the historical romance I was toying with over a year ago before I committed to the now-completed one. There are a couple of scenes I just loved, and I'd already outlined several chapters (but no way near enough to constitute a full novel). Moments between the hero and heroine keep overtaking my head. Like while I was walking, I had to keep stopping to jot down ideas on my phone.

I love this part. The dreaming and drafting. The "OMG I HAVE TO WRITE THIS SCENE DOWN NOW OR I WILL DIE!" feeling. While there's so much possibility, and I can take the story anywhere I want, and I don't have to worry about filling in the gaps. What's your favourite part of the writing process?

The other turn I'm making is (obviously) changing from contemporary to historical. Several years ago I would not have considered doing anything BUT historical. I was fully immersed in that world. Now I've been reading contemporary fiction, consuming author blogs, etc etc. It's going to be a major mind-shift to get back into historical (probably Georgian or Regency) mode. I've been sort of pushing all of that to the side, purely due to time constraints. And while it's daunting to consider catching up, I'm excited to get back to my first love.

Another thought as sort of a foot-note... stop to notice the world around you. As I was furiously taking notes on my iPhone while I strolled back along here...

... I almost missed the first ducklings of the season:

I do love me some ducklings... well any baby animals really! This was a lovely way to finish the afternoon.

02 October 2011

A Time to Grow

It's spring here in New Zealand. Well, on some days it feels like it might be. All of our spring bulbs are awash with colour, and as the winter rains have started to drain from the ground we've begun to actively garden again. Weeds have popped up, some plants need to be moved, and a general treatment of fertiliser is required to give all of our plants a head-start.

One section of our vege patch is already sequestered by strawberry plants - the babies of last year's crop. They've been tentatively producing flowers and rather deformed strawberries for a couple of months now. I was watching a gardening show the other day and was a little surprised by their advice: take off all of the flowers in the early season. This will allow the plant to grow bigger and produce bigger, better fruit.

I took myself out to the patch today, and got busy with weeding. I looked at the lovely white strawberry flowers, and all the developing fruit, and ignored them for a while. Then when I looked closer, I noticed that many of the strawberries were in a sorry state. Some were quite flat, while others had lots of little knobs of them - a bit like a rooster's comb! I realised these are not going to be good strawberries for eating anyway. So, rational thought overtaking my nurturing instincts, I plucked the flowers and fruits from the plants with increasing courage. There was probably a hundred or more. I do hope this act of sacrilege does indeed result in healthier plants (not deceased ones).

A strawberry flower (right) and a baby strawberry (left). Both had to go!
As I stripped the plants, it got me thinking about where I am with my writing at the moment. I have queried a number of agents with my current MS, and while I've had some interest there's been no offers. I have a few more agents to query, including some "dream" agents, and while the rejection (or lack of response) will sting, I'm more ready for it now than I was a few months ago. I have all but accepted that this is not the MS that will launch me into publication orbit. And on one hand it feels like Groundhog Day, but on the other I know I've learned so much this time. I feel much better equipped to start with a new idea, more confident that I have the tools I need (or at least more than I had before) to execute it well.

Like the strawberries, I am in a growing phase. I could try to put work out there, but it won't be as good as the work I'll produce in the future. I know that even if I do get published eventually, I'll continue to improve with each successive novel. It's all about timing (and luck, of course). I need to accept that right now, I'm supposed to be growing. Later when I bear fruit again, I believe it'll be that much better for it.

I'm sure everyone's seen this video, but it helps me every time I hear this advice.

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

21 September 2011

So How's That Book Coming Along?

Image: Master isolated images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Sometimes it seems like there is nothing more complicated, drawn-out, fulfilling, frustrating, and bewildering as the (attempted) path to publication. One of the most satisfying thing for a writer is to share the journey with other writers. Perhaps no-one else can understand just what it's like.

That doesn't, however, stop other people in your life from asking about it. With my first completed MS, I was extremely open about it. I told people I was writing a book.

"So how's that book coming along?" they'd ask me, whenever I saw anyone.

"Good, I'm writing lots," I could respond, or, "Nearly done!"

Then I went through edits (or what I thought were edits) and sent it to some people to read. And sadly, some of those people went quiet! (the irony is sort of amusing)

So when people would ask, "what's happening the book?" I could say, "I'm polishing it."

Then I submitted directly to publishers (you can do that here in NZ), and told people about it. I collected rejections.

Next I researched the international market, and discovered agents, querying, publishing blogs (I became a Miss Snark devotee). I poured myself into the process. When people asked me about the book, I'd try to explain how it works, and they'd assume I could just sign up with an agency (a bit like how you can sign up for a talent agency). Then I'd have to let them know that, actually, my work had to be good enough and, as of yet, it hadn't passed muster.

These enquiries, while well-meaning, tend to become tedious and sometimes downright depressing. With my current WIP, I've only told close family members, and those who happen to google me ;-) I don't really want to talk about it in person (unless I have super-dooper good news, of course!). It's like rubbing salt into a wound when I'm trying hard to convince myself there is no wound. If someone asks me what I did on the weekend, I'm no longer going to say, "I was working on my book". And yet I like being open online, as other writers know what this road is like. So there is the potential of "real life people" keeping up with my tumultuous process. At the moment this compromise seems to be working, but at times it feels like a double-life.

How public are you with your writing goals and progress? Do you like to talk about where you're at?

14 September 2011

Sunshine Snapshots

Hello everyone! It's been a while since my last post so I wanted to pop in with some evidence of our lovely holiday in the Sunshine Coast last week. I was sick again for the first 3 days or so, but it was still amazing being in balmy climes and enjoying a beachfront apartment. All too soon we were back to reality.

Kings Beach, Caloundra

Rays from Heaven

Terri, Bindi and Robert Irwin at Australia Zoo

01 September 2011

Keeping the Balance in our Lives

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I push myself hard. I always have a to-do list (both in my head and written down). I have a demanding full-time job, and I have a long list of things I want to accomplish in the other hours. There's being social: email, phone calls, Skype, Twitter, blogs. There's writing stuff: drafting, editing, querying, critiquing, learning. There's life stuff: paying bills, planning travel, researching purchases.And of course there's the every day tasks that need to be done - cooking, cleaning, exercise, etc, which could nearly consume all free time if I was conscientious enough (don't look closely at my kitchen appliances, okay?). Even if the TV's on I'll always be doing something else. Down-time has become a stranger, and the stress of everything means I don't ever sleep through the night.

This will be a familiar story to many people. I've come to realise recently that I can't keep this up. First my brain started to give way - I got headaches, dizzy spells and I couldn't think straight. Then my body gave up - I've been sick for the last two weeks, with a cold that turned into a chest infection. I put back my back out as well. No energy. Nights of being up for hours on end coughing and blowing my nose sapped all my strength. I had reached the end of myself. I needed to recharge (and I also needed drugs and lots of them!)

On the weekend my husband sent me outside to sit in the sun. I was still - delightfully still - as I admired the bright spring bulbs and let the strengthening sun penetrate my skin. And I thought for a moment, "I could just let go and be." I mean I could stop striving to achieve goals, stop working to make things better, stop opening myself up to other people and opportunities. Maybe it would be nice to just rest in where I am in life, and stop giving myself a huge list of things to do.

Just as suddenly a contradiction overtook me. No, there are things in my life (in our lives) that aren't right. There are struggles that could be smoothed out; passions that need fulfilment. The "work hard, play hard" philosophy ensures I experience the world (e.g. by earning enough to travel, and then spending a huge amount of time scouring for the best deals) and open myself up to the possibility of making my dreams come true (by pushing myself to taking writing seriously). The thing is, I can't be "on" all the time. I need to recharge. Being present in the here and now also needs to make it on to my lists. Taking time to breathe, I will ensure I have enough breath to accomplish all I need to.

I'm also taking a real holiday - we're off to the Sunshine Coast (Queensland, Australia) on Saturday, with my sister-in-law's wedding the following week. We've never been there so I'm looking forward to Australia Zoo, Fraser Island, whale watching and beach-strolling.

I don't think this post is very coherent, but hopefully you can see what I'm getting at. Have you ever reached the end of yourself? How do you ensure you don't burn out?

25 August 2011

Crazy Little Thing Called Genre

Image: tungphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Throughout the process of writing the MS I'm currently querying I have struggled with which genre it fits into. It started out with a romantic idea at its heart. Then the MC's character development (and key events influencing it) began to play a large part in the story, so I researched genres.

I concluded I should call it women's fiction with strong romantic elements. I liked the idea of it being Women's Fiction. It was a convenient way to avoid being known as a “romance author”. The stereotype is of bodice rippers, wooden characters and covers you want to hide. But what am I thinking? Heck, I’d be thrilled to be known as an [anything] author!

The query I wrote as a result  of this decision was well... bland. I see that now. So it was back to the drawing board, and back to my initial inspiration. It’s really about the romance, even though the MC has to learn a lot about other things along the way. So I’ve re-written my query, which has taken weeks, not days*, with the romance at the core. I'd be thrilled to own the title "Contemporary Romance Author". Let’s see how this baby flies.

* Time’s been scarce lately as I’ve been away visiting family and then sick as a dog this week


One of my wise critique partners has pointed out that by definition a 'romance' has the POV of both the hero and the heroine. I did not know this, although I can see it in effect with many (though not all) of the contemporaries I've read. My hero isn't a POV character. So maybe it's back to Women's Fiction after all! Regardless, for now I'm excited to see what happens with query 2.0.

16 August 2011

It's Snowmageddon!

Here in New Zealand we are in the middle of what they're calling a "polar blast"... the front's isobars are literally stretching up to our little country directly from Antarctica. The up-shot is snow, and lots of it... and much of it in places that just don't see snow. Like here in Auckland! The last time it snowed here was 1939, so this is a once in a lifetime event. Yesterday when the flakes started floating through the air, we all rushed out of the office and onto the footpath, and then promptly sheltered under the eves as the icy flakes hit our faces. It wasn't snow in the classic sense - more like floating hail - but the magic in the air was palpable. Most of the North Island is covered in white, much of it down to sea level, including our capital city Wellington. Of course the South Island has been smothered.

Here's a lovely photo of a scene in Taranaki, which doesn't see snow in a normal winter...

Image from S. Velvin of Stratford, Taranaki, courtesy of Newstalk ZB
Some of my most cherished childhood memories took place at our mountain, Ruapehu. As a small child I would toboggan down the slope on a rubbish sack, and learning to ski proved I am surprisingly not uncoordinated at all sports (just most of them). There's nothing like the thrill of being in the mountains, with fresh clean air rushing into your lungs.

Do you remember the first time you saw snow? Built a snowman? OR do you grow to hate snow in the winter?

09 August 2011

(Scary) Shiny New Idea

Image: graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
My brain is making the transition from pushing for publication of my complete WIP, to the creative thirst for writing something new. Little ideas are dropping into my consciousness, and I can feel my drafting muscle stretching, ready for a marathon.

At the moment I probably have about thirty bits and pieces floating around in my (digital) writing folder. Some are dialogue snippets, or character descriptions. Most are premises, a paragraph or more, and the tone is mainly commercial/women's fiction. I also have a 20,000 word expanded outline for a historical romance, 500 words of a book that could be YA, and 5,000 on the follow up book to the book I'm currently querying. I even have 1,000 words of story that could only be described as fantasy.

There is one new story that is shouting louder than the most. It grew in my imagination last week, after spring-boarding off another, more commercial and easy idea. I can't stop thinking about it, and I'm sure I'm going to have to make time soon to start actually writing it. The problem is it's not women's fiction... it might not even be commercial. I can't say for sure whether there'll be a happy ending or even a proper romance. The premise is slightly shocking. I suppose you could even call it "high concept". It explores morality and how good people can do bad things. It will probably told in alternating points of view, with many secrets revealed and twists along the way. I know how it starts, and a few hints of later events, and I've thought a bit about the characters - how they may have found themselves in this position, and why it's destroyed their worlds. Apart from that I don't have a plot. And my typical pantser instinct is just dying to jump in and start exploring this situation to see where it goes.

It will require a ton of research, and a heck of a lot of outlining and planning once I get going (I have to figure out how those secrets and twists should intersect and when), and it will probably be emotionally taxing. I don't know how I'd start the research or if I'd ever get the time. I'm going to be treading in areas of human experience I have not encountered in real life, and I might interpret these things incorrectly. I could really stuff this up and just give up half way through.

It would be a lot easier to just keep going with one of my 'brighter' ideas... to sail through on romance and commercial scenarios. But like I said, this idea just won't leave me alone. It's demanding enough head space to bloom into a real story. So I'm thinking I need to set aside a couple of hours this weekend to give it some air time in my frazzled mind. And who knows, maybe it will fizzle away once the initial creative burst is done. Or maybe it will completely hijack my life for the next year and I'll be in query hell again come August 2012.

Have you ever had a story hijack your brain... something completely different to what you thought you'd write? Have you had an idea really stretch you and work out as you planned?

08 August 2011

02 August 2011

Does Personality Trump Skill?

Image: tungphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
In our lives we'll make many professional relationships. We tend to favour those we like personally - it's a natural tendency. You may not care about your accountant, but you might have a close bond with your hairdresser. If you don't like your boss's personality, you'll be in for a rocky ride no matter how qualified or experienced they are.

Obviously in any professional relationship, the person’s ability to do the job is the most important thing. If we only hired people we liked, we’d just work with our friends and never get anything done. But personality is important. I've had to hire quite a few people. I have said no to perfectly qualified people based purely on cultural fit. I knew they wouldn’t fit into the team, that they’d be unhappy, and that ultimately I might have to recruit someone else in a few months. Getting on with people, or just being able to relate, is important.

I wonder how vital personality is when you're selecting an agent (most of us would be estatic if any agent selected us, but in a dream world you'd have multiple offers). The most important quality for an agent is obviously their ability to sell your work. But depending on an agent’s style, the relationship is incredibly important. They are a coach, a mentor, they work alongside you to develop creative ideas and they deliver news, good and bad. If you’re not on the same wavelength, you can’t expect to be very productive. At best, you may have limited contact. At worst, it could disrupt your career.

How important is personality to you in selecting an agent? If you only had one offer, would you dare say no because they rubbed you up the wrong way?

Now this is completely unrelated, but the word "personality" always makes me think of this song:

25 July 2011

Don't Stop Living Your Life

It's tempting to live in an imagined future, to make the present more bearable. We think about one or two major goals or circumstances in our life, and how things will be different if they'd only turn out like we want. We put all our energy into visualising what life will be like when some external factor changes, instead of putting the focus on developing ourselves where we are right now.

- When I lose weight I'll go on holiday
- When I meet someone I'll go to concerts and plays
- I just have to endure this day job, because my writing will make money one day
- When the kids are a bit older I'll get back into my hobbies

This is a dangerous way to live. I know that full well, because I've realised that dreaming about how  life could be is like a drug. Slipping into a fantasy world where one or more of your dreams come true is like a heady tonic for every day life. On the positive side, it can make us work for our goals - we go on a diet, we go to clubs in the hope of meeting someone, or we push ourselves through revisions of our WIP. Sometimes our dreams may come true... and sometimes they won't. There doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason. In the meantime, we may be ignoring the life we actually have. Maybe we're trying so hard to have a child, that we forget to tend to the relationship we have with our partner and our family members. Perhaps we're ignoring our passions while we hunt for a mate or raise our children. Or maybe we don't put energy into developing (and even trying to enjoy) our career because we just think of it as a "day job".

The light bulb moment for me is that there needs to be a balance. Yes we need goals, but we also need to focus on what we have right now. As a writer I naturally prefer to dwell in imaginary worlds. But I need to put just as much effort into nurturing my present life. Imaginary chickens may never hatch, so I need to sow the seeds I have right in my hand.

20 July 2011

Flattery vs Insincerity

Image: Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
or To Suck Up or Not to Suck Up, That is the Question

I'm tiptoeing in the trenches, diving into the slushpile and baiting my hook... I'm querying. It took me a while to craft a few paragraphs which describe the main characters and story, and I know it's not perfect. It's close enough to enable me to send it out to see if I get any bites. If I don't get any requests, I'll tweak it.

The subject of this post however, is the bit you're supposed to customise for each agent. Most writing-advice websites implore you to say something specific about why you and this agent are destined to become professional soul mates. Perhaps she knows you by your handle when you comment on her blog. Maybe you adore or are very similar to someone on her client list. You may have met at a conference (that's never going to happen for me in my geographic isolation).

I do research every agent I query. I have been reading some of their blogs for years, or following them on Twitter for months. I may love some of their clients, but I can't find a way to relate their work to my own. It's really hard to write a sentence which conveys some of this without sounding like a stalker, or just plain pathetic.

"I love your blog, so I thought you might like to represent me."
"I have long respected your agency, and hope my novel may be of interest."
"I would love to join your list of well-respected authors in [this genre]."
"I comment on your blog a lot. My novel is..."
"I like what you say on Twitter."

In a couple of queries I have mentioned specific blog posts or talked about something from the agency website. When it's relevant and true, it feels right to put it in the query. But when it's just pandering for the sake of it, I feel fake. Even if I've had an agency on my To Query list for ages, there's not always something specific to say. "I've wanted to query you for ages" or "I'd like to join your stable of really cool authors" doesn't seem to cut it.

The other tricky bit is the bio. Some websites advise the equivalent of "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all". If you don't have any writing-related credits or associations, don't include a bio. Other websites insist you should definitely have a bio however brief. While I've had to do a lot of writing for my day jobs over the years, there's nothing specific I can point to. So when I attempt to write a bio it sounds like a dating profile or a desperate plea. "I do [this] for a living, but it's my life ambition to be a writer. I am married with two cats and enjoy long walks on the beach." Hmm.

Fellow queriers, how do you tackle these things? Do you make stuff up, or omit them altogether?

16 July 2011

Spectacular Sounds

Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Last night we enjoyed a fabulous concert by the NZSO, "Russian Soul" (free tickets, yay). The programme was:

MUSSORGSKY arr. RIMSKY KORSAKOV Night on Bald Mountain
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 3
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4

The guest conductor, Pinchas Steinberg, didn't waste any time making eye contact with the various section leaders before starting, he just gave an authoritative flick of his baton and they were off. He lead all three pieces from memory. He seemed like a man who doesn't accept anything less than perfection.

According to the programme, "Night on Bald Mountain" is based on a very dark story, but I wouldn't have known it. After a dramatic beginning, it grew more beautiful as it went along. I sat there with a smile on my face, which only widened when the pianist took to the stage. Simon Trpceski was flamboyant, precise, at ease. He was literally bouncing off the piano stool. His effusive personality came to the fore when he introduced the encore, a Macedonian folk song arranged for piano trio. I felt for the cello player in particular - it was very difficult! When presented with a bouquet of flowers, he kissed the giftee three times, then threw the bouquet up into the crowd.

I enjoyed the Tchaikovsky too, ruminating on how music lifts the soul to a higher plain. Is there any other medium which can provoke emotion, put us at ease, bring us together and soothe our spirits? A life without music would be a poor life indeed.

P.S. Is anyone else excited that they're making another Winnie the Pooh movie? I love that kind of art too :-)

15 July 2011

And Now, For Something Completely Different*

This cracks me up.

* Felt like things were getting a little too heavy around here :-)

14 July 2011

On Being Judged

Maybe it's because I'm an introvert, but I seem to be very sensitive to being judged, particularly how I'm perceived at a personal level in my words and actions. I'm not obsessed with my appearance - I try to be tidy and appropriate but I'm not a slave to make-up or clothes. My main sensitivities tend to be around small incidents that make me feel more embarrassed than I should.
For example, It started raining this morning while I was waiting to cross at a busy intersection. I took off my backpack, fumbled around until I located my umbrella under my lunchbox, and hastily opened it as cold drops soaked through my top. Then I couldn't figure out how to hold it over my head and also zip up my bag at the same time (and then put my bag back on), without bumping into those around me. Sounds simple enough but I felt incredibly uncoordinated and I was fervently hoping that no-one was paying any attention. Little things like this... or tripping up in the street... or spilling food on myself, are the little trials of public humiliation I despise.
I hate the feeling of looking like an idiot in front of other people. And I seem to screw up more when people are watching - dropping things when my boss is waiting for me, getting my words all muddled up when on the phone with work contacts, or banging into a filing cabinet on my way back to my desk. Maybe this is part of why I don't like being the centre of attention. Paradoxically, I liked being praised, but I get the same buzz whether it's public or private. So when I'm succeeding in public, it's all good, but when I fail (however insignificantly) it hurts. In the back of my mind I'm haunted by the constant question: are they judging me?
Even if no-one watches us do something stupid or fail at something, we are confronted by our own personal standards. The perfectionist within us cries out, "Why did you do that?" or "How could you do that?" The toughest judge is often ourselves.
Our lives are a series of judgements. Job interviews. Exams. First dates. Showing up to a party when you don't know anyone. We can make an impression on the page or orally as well as in person. I always have to write down and rehearse my voicemail message before recording it. The same trick is employed when having to ring someone with a confrontational message (confrontation is not my friend!). If I'm uncomfortable in any of these situations, I do my darnedest to hide it. The "fake it till you make it" technique still rings true.
Although we are sometimes forced to do things which put us under the spotlight (like speeches at school, ugh!), many times we make a conscious choice to put ourselves out there. Right now, my work is being critiqued and I'm querying agents. By putting it (and by extension, myself) out there under a microscope, I'm inviting judgement. The fact that I won't face rejection face-to-face makes it a little easier... I can lick my wounds in private and battle on. And I know that without opening myself up to critcism, I won't grow or learn... or succeed. Developing professional thick skin is a requirement.
If we want to move forward in life, we have to get used to judgement. More than that, we have to view these occasions as opportunities to progress to bigger and better things. And if we make a bad impression? Well, there's always a lesson we can learn... and people will forget your mistakes far quicker than you will. We should congratulate ourselves for trying. Having the courage to put yourself out there is more valiant than accepting second-best in your life.
The lesson for me is to just relax and give myself a break once in a while. I can't please everyone all the time, and artistic endeavours are particularly subjective. I don't know how to stop being uncoordinated in front of other people - perhaps slowing down and being more aware of my surroundings would be a good first step!
Do you struggle with being judged? How do you embrace it or overcome your insecurities?

09 July 2011

One Year On

Image: graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
It was my birthday on Friday, which of course reminded me of how my life was this time last year. It's been a year of changes in many ways, and one of the most important is with my writing. This time last year I hadn't written seriously in longer than I care to admit, and I hadn't been reading solidly either. We took a holiday to celebrate my birthday (it was a significant number) and I suppose it must have been a mental vacation as well. It was a relaxing, beautiful time (even though I was sick for most of it) and I did a lot of reading. When we got back something had shifted. I felt compelled to open that folder on my computer which had laid long dormant. Apart from the major project I'd been querying and a few related WIPs, I'd forgotten about all the other ideas I'd stored away for a later time. It was the time. I toyed with thousands of words on a few different ideas before one really stuck.

And now, one year later, I am putting the finishing touches on my book. Whether it gets published or not it's still my book (apart from in the most literal sense, how do we define what a 'book' is anyway?). I have learned so much, not only since the last time I went through this process, but during the last year as well. I've come a long way, and even if it just turns out to be part of my writer's education without bearing any outward fruit, it's been worth it.

So, what have I learned going through this final edit a.k.a my third draft/finished manuscript?

Chapter One is still evil
The darned thing is so important, yet so hard to get right, it takes me twenty times longer to edit than any other chapter. I knew once I'd finished the first draft that it needed the most work, but I wasn't prepared for how much. Which leads me on to...

Critique partners are really important
Even if they don't make it all the way through the book, their insights on the early pages are like gold. My flaws are my flaws, so the learnings I have gleaned from them seap through to un-critiqued chapters. Thanks guys!

Distance is essential
I've taken some time in between edits, during which I've learned more about the craft and let my critiques sink in. Now I'm less precious about my 'darlings' and more willing to sacrifice them. Objectivity, while not absolute yet, is freeing.

At some point, you have to cut the cord
I could tweak away for months longer, but I'm getting to the stage where I just have to start querying, to know if this book is actually going to fly or not. Making small changes to individual words are not going to make that much difference now. And I'm itching to get back into my next project.

I'm not going to blog in detail about the querying process I'm about to go through, because that will only make it that much harder when the rejections start to come in. I already have a long list of potential agents, which I've compiled one by one during this journey. I haven't gone to Agent Query or Publisher's Marketplace and trawled through the listings. Instead I have just bookmarked (and followed the blogs of) those agents who represent my genre and/or authors I like, and seem to be cool/smart/sweet/famous/emerging. I do have my 'dream agents' I suppose, but I know it's impossible to really know what it's like to work with someone until you actually do. It's not time for chicken-counting, it's time to take my MS out for a test run and see how it performs.