Finding Inspiration

 

Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle

Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle

I’ve recently moved to Newcastle from Sydney and I’m really enjoying the new environment. Apart from the beautiful beaches and the relaxed lifestyle, there are new stories to discover and explore. (And let’s not forget the ‘cyclone’ and then spending a week without power.)

Sometimes I seek the stories out, walking along beaches and streets, sitting having a morning coffee and listening to conversations and, of course, meeting new people. But occasionally, inspiration finds me.

The dark-bricked Christ Church Cathedral sits atop a ridge in the Newcastle suburb, The Hill. It is a commanding presence, demanding obedient acknowledgement. From the King Street entrance, the Cathedral looms above, beautiful Moreton Bay Figs casting much-needed shade over a staircase winding through the park grounds to the Cathedral. The first flight of stairs isn’t out of the ordinary, grey cement, low risers and a steel handrail leading up the lower slope. But the second flight of stairs changes, they become more than just an access way up a particularly steep pathway.

The  names

The names

On each of the risers the names of three people are engraved, detailing the age, any known relatives, the profession or place in society and the date of death. Each step is a memorial to three of the two hundred and fifty-eight people, the men, women, children and babies who had died and were buried in the churchyard. this is all that remains of their stories; their graves and gravestones long-fallen into such a sad state of disrepair, that they could not be salvaged.

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For some, there is little more to say, an infant who struggled for eleven hours before dying, leaving nothing but the grief of parents. But others hint at more sinister deaths and circumstances; ‘murdered by natives’, how? and why? I immediately wonder. Or the tragedy of three young siblings killed in a bushfire. There are many drownings in the harbour and off the beaches, recalling a time when even professional seamen couldn’t swim. And what of their families back in England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales? Did they ever learn that their loved one was buried in Newcastle soil, above rich coal seams?

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Behind these briefest and barest of summaries of two hundred and fifty-eight lives there are stories, ideas for stories, stories that could be updated, given a contemporary context, stories that could be used for a story’s starting point or woven into an existing story. Perhaps they may even form the basis of a blog post. A reminder that inspiration is all around us and sometimes we only need to take a different path, turn left and climb a set of stairs to be reminded.

All that remains of the graveyard today - some headstones are so worn they are no longer legible.

All that remains of the graveyard today – some headstones are so worn they are no longer legible.

As I reached the top of the hill, walking passed the remains of the graveyard, incongruously positioned next to a very unattractive carpark beyond the cyclone-wire fencing, I turned back and took in the view. Two hundred and fifty-eight names bearing witness to the busy lives of contemporary Newcastle, the harbour and Stockton beyond, the industrial landscape of the busy port and all the stories waiting to be told.

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Writing and Keeping it Real

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Recently I put aside a book after only 2.5 chapters. When I say ‘aside’ it was actually tossed into a charity box never to be seen on my bookshelves again, I was so annoyed with what I’d read.

It wasn’t a particularly ‘high-brow’ novel, but it was written by an author whose books I have always enjoyed in the past, but now I will approach any other books by this author with a sense of wariness. In fact it may take me a while to even go there again.

So, what was the problem? The main character had supposedly suffered from a history of mental illness. Depression to be precise. It wasn’t something that had occurred once, many years ago and then obliquely referred to, not one part of the back story that maybe highlighted the character’s action/reaction to a particular plot point. Oh no. It was a lengthy description, going into considerable detail about how it had impacted on the character’s life and relationships and how it had manifested. Tears. Lots of tears.

For anyone who has never suffered from a major depressive illness, crying buckets of tears probably would seem pretty depressing. But if you have any experience of depression, you will  know it is not sorrow that you feel nor the absence of happiness. It is the absence of vitality and motivation, it is a lethargy and sense of worthlessness that can confine you to the interior of your home and the darkness of your thoughts. Perhaps a minor bout may be a weepy, tissue-sodden experience, but the depiction in this book did not ring true. It felt completely unreal.

As a writer you form a contract with your reader that you will strive for authenticity, even in  fantasy, sci-fi or magical realism novels where the reader is invited to suspend their disbelief, their sense of the ‘real’, the writer must still deliver authenticity.

Sometimes the credibility comes from ensuring your character’s reactions/actions are true to the personality traits and the story you have created. Other times it may require research to provide the believability of your work. Paying lip service to, or writing what you think is the reality is not a winning move.

This doesn’t mean I needed to read a detailed account of the character’s anti-depressant regime or the counselling or whatever else was undertaken to deal with the depression, but a little more than weeping at a TV ad was needed.

It could just be the author didn’t want to go into the grim detail of mental illness, perhaps it might have been perceived as a bit of downer in a light-hearted, escape novel. Well, don’t go there – at least  not in 2 pages of description.

As a writer, reading is not an optional extra. Reading shows us the good and the bad, it helps hone the craft we’re trying to master. So even though I was annoyed by the writing, it taught me a very valuable lesson – the importance of being able to walk in shoes I’ve never tried on before and have my readers believe the exact opposite.

How Many Words Does It Take To Write A Book?

IMG_6794The Words that Formed The Wardrobe Girl

 

Word count. Writers are addicted to their word count. That little self-help tool that ticks over in the tool bar of your document pushing you towards that much sought after sign off – The End.

But when is enough, enough and how will you know?

There are no easy answers to those questions (sorry if I was holding out false hope there). There are lots of ifs, buts, maybes and how long is a piece of string kind of responses. Sometimes it’s dependent on genre, so if you’re writing a picture book, 400 crisply chosen, precise words maybe all you need, but a Scifi or Fantasy epic may need 120,000 words to paint the world and tell the story.

My book, The Wardrobe Girl, is just 94,000 words, but I’d say I probably wrote at least 200,00 to achieve the 94,000 words that made it into the published copy. My first draft came in at 105,000 words, but there were many rewrites and scrunched up sheets of paper on the way. Most of those words were handwritten (I’m an old-fashioned pencil/pen and paper girl) before they made it onto a word document. Although, I have allowed myself some artistic license there – I never scrunch up my sheets of paper and I’ve never had an overflowing waste paper basket, the Hollywood shorthand for writer at work, trying to breakthrough writer’s block. Oh no, we have blogs for that these days!

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My words are kept, usually between the covers of a Moleskine. I carry a notepad with me ready to write down any conversational gems I overhear or to take note of someone’s outfit, or idiosyncracy. The journals are my starting point for the writing, although, for some reason book 2 is currently being written on a blank foolscap pad – I’m not sure if this working for me, I’ll let you know. Sometimes my words are retrieved or used elsewhere. It might just be a phrase I’ve highlighted or a whole paragraph. Sometimes a whole scene has been resurrected. I know there’s all kinds of software that does it for you, but 1, I’d have to learn how to use it and 2, I like to have physical access to them.

But, how did I know when enough was enough?

I didn’t really. I reached a point where I knew it still needed work, but wasn’t sure how to quite go about it. With the encouragement of a friend, the wonderful writer A.D. Scott, I submitted my manuscript to her agent, and now mine, Sheila Drummond. The word count was sitting at about 96,500 at this stage, but I couldn’t see where to lose those 6,500 words to hit the magical 90,000 word mark for my genre – contemporary women’s fiction (aka – chick lit). Sheila reassured me that when a publisher got hold of it I would have all the guidance I needed.

And she was right.

Although the rewriting isn’t necessarily any easier during the editing process, at least you have some guidance and all those tracking changes down the side. You know where to cut, massage and completely rewrite. But without any words, you can’t do any of those things.

So how many words? As many as it takes. Listen to your intuition, because those gut instincts are you usually right. Don’t be scared to write it big and write it ugly, those words can be refined. In the end, the answer always comes down to the same thing. Write. Put one word down after another and you will form a sentence and the sentences will eventually a become your book.

The Final Pages, My Work is Done

 

The Readers' Copy

The Readers’ Copy

I have finally finished.

After years of writing, rewriting and editing, my book is typeset and will head off to the printers on Friday.

I feel such a strange mix of emotions. Relief, excitement, anticipation and, strangely, sadness.

I’ve put so much into the writing of this book that letting go, waiting to hand it over to the public is almost with a sense of loss. Everything I could do is done and now my characters and the world they inhabit will face the reality of bookshop shelves, bedside tables, coffee stains, dog-eared corners and critics. But isn’t that what I wanted? Absolutely!

To reach this final stage, I’ve travelled a funnel-shaped journey. It started with the big picture, a splashing of colour and movement in big, bold strokes. Each draft or version – there were 47 before it went to my agent, Sheila Drummond and then onto Beverley Cousins at Random House – was a process of refinement, of whittling down and narrowing my focus. By the time I reached the final pages, I was assessing the worth of an individual phrase or word, correcting punctuation with a brush of sable-like fineness. I know it’s a better book for the process and I am sure I have learnt much along the way, although I feel too close still to articulate it all.

But I will say this. Trust your gut instincts. If it feels wrong, whether it’s a word, an action, a whole passage or plot line, it probably is. Write it big and and ugly in the first draft. If you have words on a page you can begin to edit, without words you have nothing. Let yourself fall in love with your characters and then listen to what they are telling you, let them off your leash so they can roam. Listen to your editor, agent, publisher, they all want the best for your book. they won’t give advice that will make it worse or destroy the integrity of your work. But, if you really disagree and can justify why, then stick to your guns.

Next up for me is the publicity and that is going to something else again!

Hitting Your Mark - the first draft

Hitting Your Mark – the first draft

The Copy -Edit Blues

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You’ll grow to love your copy-editor. It may take a little time as you work through the corrections and comments tracked down the side of your manuscript, but eventually you will realise how important they are.

It is rather deflating to open a document and notice a page of red tracking changes on the right hand side. A glaring pointer to misplaced commas, typos that had slipped through and comments pointing out continuity errors and suggestions to improve the understanding or readability of a sentence. And then the joy of discovering a page of pristine black and white text, free of the red errata markers.

I decided to tackle the least daunting task first. Clicking my way through, accepting the punctuation corrections and then going back through to address the comments. (Can you imagine how long this would have taken before the computer??) It certainly started out as a fairly straightforward process, but as I moved through my manuscript, I became quite emotional, and a little defensive. I’d spent so long writing this book. I’d listened to Tess, my main character talking to me, telling me about her life, her feelings and here was a copy-editor changing and commenting on my work? Arrgh! But I wrestled myself back into a box, talked myself down from the tree and spoke to my editor, Anne Reilly.

‘Do I have to accept all the comments and changes?’ I asked nervously.

‘No, of course not. It’s your name on the cover,’ she replied.

‘That’s right.’ I reminded myself. My name on the cover. Arrrgh!! Again. But a different Arrrgh! this time. This was the realisation that yes, this was actually happening. I am having my book published. I’d finally moved from beyond the surreal, is this actually happening to me stage?,  to the wow, this is actually happening, bring on stress-inducing terror of making it as perfect as I could, stage.

So, I moved through the comments, paring back, rewriting where necessary and rejecting what I felt I needed to. Now, with the benefit of some sleep and a few days distance, it wasn’t a huge amount of work, but there was one scene I rewrote completely. Perhaps a few pages doesn’t sound so much, but at this stage it took some courage to take a deep breath, admit I could do better and start it again.

It was a fortnight of stress. Of working through my emotional reactions to the process, of bringing objectivity and new inspiration to a project I’ve been working on for a few years. That’s not so easy. Not for me.

I made my deadline with an A++ for reliability and delivery from my editor. And now I’m back in waiting mode. there’s a lot of waiting in the publishing process. There is other work to do and the pleasure and responsibility of writing my Acknowledgements and an Author’s note.  I haven’t heard any screams of torment reverberating across Sydney Harbour from my publisher’s office – I’ll let you know if I do!

Next up, the copy is sent to the typesetter and my next delivery will be the pages. And then off to the printers.

I’m nearly there. The Wardrobe Girl will be available from the beginning of March in bookstores and as an e-book.

You can also follow me here on Facebook.

There’s more to being published than writing a book.

So, you’ve written a book. You’ve done the editing and the rewriting. It’s in the hands of a publisher. Job done. Right? Wrong.

No, your job is about to take on whole new world. Welcome to marketing and publicity, the business end of the publishing industry. Perhaps in some Publishing Utopia you can just focus on your creativity, your artistic endeavour, but here on Planet Earth, it doesn’t work that way. Not if you do actually want to be published. I’m not going to get involved in self=publishing here, because I know nothing about it, but I suspect it’s no different.

For the last few weeks I have been busy finessing the cover of my novel, The Wardrobe Girl. The artwork and ‘look’ was done in-house by Random Books Australia, briefed by my publisher, Bev Cousins. This included writing the back cover copy, my bio and finding the best filmic image to place the book in its world of a TV soap opera.

The Front Cover was a very pleasant surprise, once I got my head around the pink typeface, I was delighted. If you’ve ever spoken to an author, or listened to an author at a writers’ festival, you may have heard the horror stories about covers they hate being imposed on them. But I loved that the girl in the image has an intelligent, curious, slightly cheeky expression and I loved the film set paraphernalia. It has the visual quality and feel of a film poster, which is perfect. Be ready, for a strange experience here – you will see your name on the cover of the book. It’s the most wonderful feeling of surreal disbelief and butterflies of joy.

The back cover copy is so important too. Once the reader/buyer picks up your book because the cover is so wonderful, this could be their first introduction to your book and once they’re holding it you want them to keep a tight hold of it until they part with their cash and take it home to read. It needs to intrigue, pique the interest and reflect the tone/style of the novel. You don’t want them putting back on the shelf because they’ve decided it sounds to highbrow when a holiday read is what they’re after and vice-versa. This is surprisingly tricky to pull off, so be prepared and practise!

I was lucky that the ‘shoutout line’ on the cover was perfect, so I didn’t need to worry about that. But again, be prepared. Your publisher may send through something you hate, or may need a bit of tweaking.

And of course the most psychologically damaging part of the whole exercise – the author shot. My book is very much a genre novel – chick-lit, to be precise. so my brief was ‘warm and inviting, friendly, big smile. I confess, I pulled out the big guns. I employed a professional photographer, the talented Angela Pelizzari, and make-up artist to the stars of TV, Trinity Raine. It was so worth it. they made the whole experience relaxing and comfortable. Don’t try to scrimp by here – your mugshot will be on the back cover of your book forever! And you don’t want to scare the punters away either.

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I sent off about half a dozen shots for Bev to choose and within a couple of days the finalised cover appeared in my inbox. there on the back cover was my photo! If I was excited seeing my name, it pales in comparison to the overwhelming reality check of me looking out from the back cover of the book. My book. It was about now I became a little teary.

But that’s just the cover. I have created a Facebook Author Page and the hashtag #TheWardrobeGirl on Twitter and I’m helping design the Chapter Openers with my in-house editor, Anne Reilly.

But the writing goes on. By the end of this month the copy edit will arrive and I’ll have a couple of weeks to work through that, before it’s returned for a final copy edit. And then it’s off to the printers by the end of December.

Stay tuned, as they say, the next few months could be pretty hectic!

PS this blog post is also a shameless piece of self-promotion for my book!

Revising The Revisions: Learning How To Edit.

Novellist, Toni Jordan* describes writers as ‘Knitters or Quilters.’ There are the writers, like me who ‘cast on’ their story at Chapter 1 and then knit/write their way to the end, ‘casting off’ only when they have finished the last chapter. Conversely, the ‘quilters’, write/quilt pieces and then sew/write the pieces to form blocks and then piece together again to form a whole. The editing process is mostly a quilting process.

I quite like a bit of nanna technology and can often have a couple of knitting or quilting projects on the go, so this analogy made perfect sense to me. I realised, that for me, the art of editing was going be learning how to quilt as a writer. How to move pieces/passages around the manuscript, creating new pieces and then pulling it all together.

But let’s go back a step. My publisher, Beverley Cousins at Random House, sent me through some very comprehensive notes about the manuscript – some general observations, detailed notes on particular scenes and points that needed clarification. She had also picked up typos, spelling and punctuation errors. This was all on a hard copy of the manuscript, marked up line by line, with an explanation of the squiggles she uses as shorthand.

For the next 6 weeks or so, these documents were my Bible.

I had a road map to follow and follow I did. Although I didn’t take on every suggestion, because there were some things I felt needed to stay. Now I could finally look at my work with fresh eyes. After the long process of writing, then rewriting and revising before I even submitted the manuscript, I’d reached a point where I’d fallen out of love with writing, my writing, my manuscript.  I was re-energised. Yes, I was worried I might ruin the whole story, destroy all that work, but understand this: there is no rational basis for the terror that may descend at this point. all you can do is write through it. I know, it’s not fair.

Some pages look like this.

Some pages look like this.

Other pages look more like this.

Other pages look more like this.

The revisions bring tough decisions. Some ‘darlings’ are killed off. Lines you’d waited for, hunted for, scrawled out, rewritten and fought for, are sent to the editing room floor. Characters must earn their place in the story and if they don’t, so long. Other characters begin to play a role you never anticipated for them, or become more sympathetic. It’s hard to change your characters, even their names (one of my supporting cast had his name changed 3 times). I love all my characters, even the ones I disliked. They all talked to me and gave me ideas, when I was quiet enough to listen.

Of course, some of the revision was ‘mechanical’. Correcting typos, punctuation, etc and that’s where I chose to start. I could do this straight onto the computer and it didn’t require a great deal of creative thought, but it did put me back in touch with the story. It allowed ideas to form and percolate.

Eventually, you have to do the writing! I wish there was a secret formula for that, but I’m still searching. And perhaps this is another example of my love of nanna technology, now I reach for my pen and paper, or my Moleskine books.  I head off to The State Library of NSW and I write.

Writing - Stage 1 the nanna technology

Writing – Stage 1 the nanna technology

And then I rewrite the revisions. But there’s more. The next step is entering it into the computer and there’s always some tweaking and tinkering done there. That’s printed off, and a final edit with pen and paper is done.

Eventually, I make it this far.

Eventually, I make it this far.

It’s not a quick process, but as Michael Crichton** says, ‘Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten’.

There is one final step, the most terrifying. You email your revisions back to your publisher and wait…

Actually, I’m wrong. The most terrifying moment is opening the return email from your publisher. Fortunately, Bev loved my revisions. Now my manuscript is off to the copy-editor. I’ll let you know how that goes.

*Toni Jordan is an Australian author of intelligent, funny, novels that some might call chick-lit. Click here for her Official Website

**Michael Crichton was a best-selling author extaordinaire, Jurassic Park is just one of his many books and creator of one my all time favourite TV shows, ERClick here for his official Website.

Second Album Syndrome or Writing Book Two

 

Killcare Beach

Killcare Beach

You’d like to think that after writing a book that’s picked up by a literary agent, the writing of book number 2 would come easily, wouldn’t you? But second album syndrome is alive and well in my creative neck of the woods.

Having been told to start writing book two IMMEDIATELY, by my agent (pause for a moment while I let the words ‘my agent’ sink in), I did what any self-respecting writer would do; I had a creative meltdown.

It sounded a little like this.

Start a whole new book? How can I start a whole new book when I’m creatively exhausted from writing the first book?  Find all those new words? Again? How can I do that when I have (practically) no idea what the second book is actually about.? Haven’t I done enough? I don’t want to do this again, it’s way too confronting. What if it’s terrible?

Cue – the sequel.

That seemed like an easy straw to grasp, but even that proved to be very slippery to hang on to. But it was something. So, with no idea where it might take me, I wrote a Chapter One, hoping that some miraculous epiphany would occur. It didn’t. But at least I had a chapter.

In a state of mounting panic, which has yet to fully subside, I went away for 4 days at great cost to the family I left behind. My husband, who paid the bill, my 23 yo daughter who became the live-in nanny for my 6 yo daughter and of course the 6yo daughter who doesn’t think her mother should go anywhere without her.

I made the 1½ hour trip up to Killcare on NSW’s Central Coast and made myself at home in a 2 bedroom cottage with a wonderful deck overlooking the ocean. and for 4 days I thought about Book Number Two. Away from the everyday clutter and distractions of my life, I could let my thoughts roam. If I was  being filmed by a fly-on-a-wall documentary team, this is what those 4 days would like.

Me having a leisurely breakfast of yoghurt and fresh fruit on the deck with the view. Then, after a second cup of tea, a walk down to the beach for a trudge along the sand and a swim and a bit more trudging.Tthe trudging would lead me to the local cafe for a coffee and a catch up on all things internet, emails, Twitter, Facebook, the odd phone call. All necessary, no procrastinating here. Then back up to the cottage for a light lunch and some scrawling, or looking through magazines for visual prompts. It was pretty taxing, so I’d have a little nap before some more afternoon scrawling and scribbling. By which time, I was thirsty and needing a glass of wine. Then dinner at the local club and of course uninterrupted TV viewing and book reading.

It might not sound like work, but by the end of those 4 days, I had worked out a roadmap for the story and had the bones of the first 2 chapters on which to hang the flesh of a story. I can’t go away every week, or conduct my normal life like this, but removing yourself from the distractions, giving yourself permission to think, to let ideas form, to listen to your characters is invaluable. And that’s how my first book was written. In the moments when I shut my brain off and let the ideas percolate, brew and take shape. It was written in the writing myself into the story and not dictating from above, basically, by getting out of my way.

How many of the words or ideas will actually make it into the final draft of book 2, I have no idea, but it’s not important now. I have made a start and that is what matters.

Back in the Saddle

It has been, as they say, a long time between drinks.

So long, in fact, I’ve gone beyond parched and am rapidly approaching shrivelled, dried and the merest touch could see me crumble away. But now I’m just being melodramatic.

I don’t really know why I stopped blogging regularly. Life happened. I followed other creative pursuits, like knitting my husband a sweater and there was, of course, the small matter of the manuscript. The rewriting, the editing, the coming to grips with the rewriting and the editing. The realisation that as hard and challenging as the first draft was, it was nowhere near as hard as the rewriting and editing.

The first draft was like the drawing of young child. Free, liberated, unconstrained – except by my own doubts – it could flow where it wanted to and I was happy to follow it. Now my wonderfully free-spirited child has to be disciplined to suit the genre, the publishable, the marketable qualities that are needed to move my manuscript from being a long held, quietly nurtured dream, into a fully formed reality.

It’s not easy.

My first edit which was meant to see about 20,000 words cut from the 105, 612 I’d written, resulted in about 3,000 words hitting the cutting room floor. And I realised just how brutal I was going to need to be. All those words I’d fought for, gazed out of windows searching for, got up in the middle night to jot down before I forgot them, they needed to go.  Anyone who’s ever been to a writing workshop will be familiar with the term ‘killing your darlings’, and that is what it feels like  and for me it is accompanied with a fear that these may be the only words I ever had. That new words won’t form, find me on the ferry, seek me out in the hushed quiet of the sleeping house or flow from my pen at the State Library. The fear is not so much that I only have one good book in me, but, that maybe, I only have one good draft.

But cutting 20,000 words isn’t enough. I need to lose more because there will be new words to add, characters to flesh out, new scenarios to create. Then there will be the  seamless weaving in of the new with the old. At least that’s the goal.

I’m currently on draft number four. How many more I’ll need to work through I have no idea. But I remember the words of author Pamela Freeman – ‘You will only ever be as good a writer as the number of drafts you are prepared to do.’ And I think I am only now beginning to fully appreciate just what she was trying to tell the wide-eyed group of writers, hanging on her words at one of those writing workshops.