Entries Tagged 'Year of the Novel' ↓
August 7th, 2012 — Writers, Year of the Novel
What’s the link between the tea room and the creative process? Our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, looks at the link between downtime and getting the work done.
I did some work with the theatre and film company a few years ago, and the organisation went to a lot of trouble to engage with spaces that were conducive to creativity, writing and ideas. The company was based in an amazing ramshackle heritage-listed town hall, full of strange doors and secret passageways, and there were no shortage of nooks to hole up in and write.
You could work in the theatre itself, or at one of the office desks. You could commandeer an editing suite. You could climb a ladder into the attic space with a blanket and a notebook—or take one of the strange passageways out the back to sit in the sun. But for all the amazing and varied workspaces, the best ideas were invariably born in the tearoom.
There was something about that tiny, cramped little space that nurtured inspiration and solutions. You’d be making a cuppa, spreading peanut butter on Saos and having casual conversations with all the other creatives (who were drawn like scavengers by the sound of the kettle boiling) and suddenly, things would come together. The plot hole you were agonising over would seal shut. The characters would shift into focus. The ending would begin to take shape. The tearoom was magic.
It wasn’t like we ever set out to mine the tea-room’s creative powers—we were really just taking a well-earned break—but maybe that’s the point. The moment you stop trying to force something, it decides to relent.
In a memorable Radiolab episode about willpower and the creative process, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert quotes Tom Waites’ approach to songwriting. He told her, eloquently, that songs are born in different ways. There are songs you have to sneak up on, like you’re hunting a rare bird. Songs you find in little pieces, like checking gum under a seat, and scrape together to make something whole. There are songs that need to be bullied. And, every once in a while, there are songs that emerge fully-formed and perfect.
In my experience, fully-formed ideas are rare, if they exist at all. And all the other ideas are wily. Whatever you want to call the process—creativity, inspiration, even a muse—it’s mysterious and tricky. The trickier the idea, the trickier you have to be to tame it. But as a starting point, turning your back on it (even it’s only for long enough to make a cup of tea) can be exactly what you need to catch it off guard and seize it.
July 24th, 2012 — Year of the Novel
How do you handle tax season? Our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, takes us through a very different kind of audit.
I hate doing my tax. I’ve tried to make it fun by dancing to the EOFS advert and nicknaming my accountant Rapunzel (because he spins receipts into gold, pretty much overnight), but the reality is, it’s awful.
I’ve only myself to blame. The reason it’s awful is because no matter how many times I make a New Financial Year resolution to be more efficient, my filing system is essentially a haphazard collection of post-it notes and invoices, mixed up with spare buttons, recipes for things I haven’t cooked and out-dated To Do lists, mostly unfinished. I keep it in a Penguin book tin (because one year something ate though the shoebox I was using) but it’s been so long since I actually filed anything in there, the lid was rusted shut this year.
So, in order to avoid tackling that little pile of horrors for a little longer, I decided to audit myself. Actually, to be more specific, I audited my writing.
Tallying up the number of words you’ve written in the last year is just as harrowing as adding up the number of dollars you’ve earned, especially when you start comparing “words I used then deleted” with “words I have saved”. I’ve also scattered those words over a handful of projects – and the result is none of the things I’m working on are where I hoped they’d be.
But I started reading some of the work, and found phrases and sections I fell in love with all over again – there’s nothing better than re-reading a section you’d forgotten you’d written to discover you really can write something worthwhile, after all.
And then I remembered the box of receipts and how that counts for something at tax time. I pulled out my writing book, full of plot maps and character descriptions and little drawings. Scraps of paper littered with phrases and ideas. The beginning of things I haven’t quite cashed in yet.
When you throw all that into the mix, my annual writing haul wasn’t as bad as I expected – and something about the process renewed my confidence and enthusiasm for what I’m working in. It was good to be realistic about what I need to do, and great to be re-evaluate my writing habits and priorities. But it was also good to take some time to acknowledge the things I’ve achieved this Financial Writing Year.
If you’ve got a few hours and an aversion to your finances, I’d highly recommend a self-audit – sadly, the government won’t send you a cheque when you’re complete, but the rewards are definitely worth it!
June 12th, 2012 — Writers, Year of the Novel
It’s winter in Queensland, and the cold weather has our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, reflecting on day-to-day doubts that plague all writers and the larger fear waiting in reserve….
I don’t know if it’s the cold weather, the flu bug that’s going around, or the inevitable talk of apocalypse that accompanies a series of celestial events but this week I’ve been consumed by a series of niggly, self-doubty questions. As writers I’m sure you’re no stranger to bouts of insecurity—writing is, at times, an isolating process and when you’re in the middle of a project the line between genius and crazy narrows so much you’re never sure what side you’re sitting on. I regularly question characters, plot directions and, most especially, unexpected twists—but more often than not these questions make my writing better.
But the questions I’ve been asking this week are deeper and more unsettling. The best way I can describe it is a kind of overreach-regret. Not familiar with the term? That’s ok, I made it up… so allow me to define it.
You know when you decide to clear out an overstocked cupboard? You start out all gung-ho enthusiasm and good intentions, but pretty soon you find an item that belongs in a different cupboard, and you notice how messy that cupboard it. Before you know it, you’re emptying boxes, drawers and files onto the floor, caught up in the mania of the complete house overhaul you’ve been meaning to do for years. This is great, you think. Everything’s going to be so neat once it’s done, you tell yourself. Greatest. Clean-up. Ever.
But suddenly—and believe me, it always happens suddenly—the elation disappears altogether. You’re no longer a cleaning machine. You’re just a fool standing waist-deep in a pile of everything you own, painfully aware you’ve made a terrible mistake.
That’s overreach-regret, and if it’s possible I’ve done the literary equivalent—or, I’m worried about to. There’s an element of my story that’s bugging me, and I know I’m going to need to act on it before it festers into a terrible plot hole. But it’s a change that will lead to an entire overhaul and I’m more than a little nervous.
Has this happened to you? Did you survive the overhaul? Let me know—I’d love to hear your perspective.
May 29th, 2012 — Writers, Year of the Novel
What do you do? This week our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, tackles the awkward conversation and misconceptions about writing that follow whenever she’s asked that question…
It usually happens somewhere between the first drink and the third. You’ll be standing in someone’s lounge room, admiring their collection of display weaponry* and regretting your choice of party shoes, when a stranger will approach you and introduce themselves.
Without knowing much about each other, you’ll fall back on occupation as a conversation starter. But there’s only so much a person can talk about their own pole-vaulting career before they eventually turn to you and ask: “What do you do?”
If you’re feeling brave (or crazy, and let’s face it – the line between them is a perilously thin one) you’ll mention the unthinkable: that you write. And so it begins.
The problem with telling people you write – or that you’re a writer – is that it creates a lot of expectation. People romanticise the creative process, and explaining that you sit in a room quietly typing (and deleting) sentences simply doesn’t cut it. A little creative licence can spice up the image a bit – but there is simply no licentia poetica on Earth that prepares you for the next comment.
“You’re a writer? Oh, great. I’ve got a wonderful idea for a story.”
Inevitably, people have very different ideas about what constitutes a wonderful story, and the ideas that follow are often a long way from my own: The life and death of a sports car. A political thriller set in a fish and chip shop. A playboy bunny becomes a superhero. Vampire cats. Doomed romance circa 1725 Spain.
Even when the ideas are good, they’re still not mine – and that’s something I find very hard to explain to well-meaning party guests whose only crime is being interested in my work. I write because because ideas wake me up to harass me in the middle of the night and, somehow, other people’s ideas are never as persistently unsettling as my own. If you’ve found a way to break this news to people, I’d love to hear it. But if not, if someone ever does write Vampire Cats, let me know – I’d love to read it.
*NB: The writer may have unwittingly misled you into thinking her friends are diverse enough to include weapons enthusiasts who invite pole vaulters to their house parties. Mostly her friends inhabit houses full of books, and enjoy raging tea-fuelled evenings, followed by a quiet lie-down or an episode of The Bill.
May 15th, 2012 — Writers, Year of the Novel
Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are, passed away last week. His death has prompted our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, to reflect on her first literary love and some of the characters who have followed…
Since Maurice Sendak passed away last week, the media has been awash with heartfelt tributes to the author. It’s proof enough (for me, anyway) that stories and characters are robust enough to inhabit our collective imagination, long after the pages are turned.
Max was my first love – I was only six at the time, so the age difference wasn’t creepy. When I first read Where the Wild Things Are, I thought his wolf suit was cool and the way he faced up to the monsters was brave. He made a majestic King, and even when it all went wrong for him, I knew he didn’t mean the things he said. I looked into the pages, and fell in love – the first of many literary crushes. Max was honest and impulsive and a little melancholy. Actually, if I had to have a ‘type’, that’s probably still it.
Since then, there have been many other literary-loves. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel at least a flutter for Mr Darcy, but I like my leading men a little less clean-cut. As a teenager, I would have dated Holden Caulfield, even though I would have known from the start it was going to end badly, and there’s something about Gatsby that sweeps me off my feet every time. I’d marry Atticus Finch any day of the week, and Quick Lamb (from Cloudstreet) breaks my heart over and over. There’s something about Levi, from Annna Karenina, and Czech comic artist Joe Kavalier (from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). Heck, I’d even have a dalliance with Sherlock Holmes, though I suspect he wouldn’t take me!
In 2006, Sendak ruined my mental picture of Max, when he told The New Yorker he would be a grown man by now, and much less of a catch:
“My God, Max would be what now, forty-eight? He’s still unmarried, he’s living in Brooklyn. He’s a computer maven. He’s totally ungifted. He wears a wolf suit when he’s at home with his mother!”
But in my mind, he’s just a lost little boy I can’t help admiring – and the outpouring of affection for the book, the character, and the author suggests I’m not the only one with a place in my heart for Max.
I don’t know what it takes to create a character people love – and miss – years after reading. But I do know that getting swept up in the magic of other people’s characters can’t be a bad start.
RIP Maurice Sendak, and thank you for Max.
May 1st, 2012 — Writers, Year of the Novel
Envelopes, receipts, and notebooks. This week our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, talks about the fragments of work that are done when you least expect it…
When I started my current writing project, I bought myself a notebook – a nice, brown book with thick pages that smell like cut grass. I also treated myself to a very nice pen (nerds, you know what I mean – comfy grip, thin line, inky-but-not-so-haemophilic-it-leaks-all-the-time), the kind of pen that’s fit to mark the nice, thick pages of my nice brown book.
I’ve got a computer, too. I’ve never been the kind of person who dotes on machines, but I love my lappy (laptop) – I carry it everywhere in my handbag, with the persistence and creepy devotion of a Hollywood starlet and her undersized dog.
Then there’s my work computer (not quite as loved, but it does the trick), my house full of notebooks, the memo function in my phone – a host of ways to record ideas as they come to mind.
But words are funny. They’re wild and flighty and hard to tame. The best ones, it always seems to me, are suspiciously absent when my nice brown book is open and my nice inky pen is poised. Instead they show up when I’m doing 110kmh on the motorway, or during an important meeting or a class I’m teaching. They creep into my bedroom at 3am or pop up when I’m baking scones and my hands are covered in flour. When I’m in the shower. Or when I’m out for a run.
The hard work gets done on the computer. The plot mapping gets done in the book. But the little gems – the phrases I can’t let go of and the dialogue it feels like the characters said themselves – are invariably born on the backs of receipts and envelopes. It’s messy and confusing, and I’ve lost a few to the washing machine. But there’s something poetic about a book’s creation on little scraps of paper – delicate word fragments, as mysterious and unfinished as the ideas they emerged from.
April 17th, 2012 — Uncategorized, Year of the Novel
Feel like procrastinating? Our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, has been working hard this week, and she’s been looking for distractions…
If you stopped by my office this week, I would have greeted you from underneath a pile of literary magazines and post-it notes with an excited little squeal, even if I didn’t know you and even if you only stopped by to give me bad news or sell me a steam mop or something. At that stage, you probably would have noticed the highlighter all over my face and the crazy look in my eyes, and you would have wanted to run away and never return. But it would be too late. I would already have invited you in for a cup of tea and asked you to tell me all about your extended family and your pets and your favourite colour and your medical history – anything, ANYTHING, to distract me from the task I’d given myself.
Last year, I wrote a collection of short stories and this week I decided they’d been sitting around in the virtual bottom drawer that is my hard-drive for far too long. It was time to introduce them to the world – and that meant wading through the onerous process that is literary submissions.
First, I did recon. I hauled out my collection of literary mags and journals, and pillaged everything I could find on my friends’ bookshelves. I also downloaded all the competitions, anthologies and calls for online submissions I could find. I flipped through it all, noting style and substance, and left myself a trail of post-it notes with helpful little messages like: “short stories and flash fiction”; “promising focus on emerging writers”; “no longer in print – woe is the publishing industry” and “submission date closed last week – why didn’t you do this sooner, you STUPID STUPID IDIOT???”
Next, the process of matching stories to publications. This step is deceptively simple – all you need to do is choose the best fit for each of your stories. Easy. If you ignore all the self-doubty, second-guessy questions a decision like this raises. Is my work too political? Not political enough? What’s the publication’s likely position on love stories about a profane talking dugong and an aquarium attendant???
And finally the actually submission process – a marathon of formatting instructions and style guides. Font requests. Double spacing. De-identifying. Cover letter. No cover letter. Cover form. American spelling. Australian spelling. Oxford Commas. No simultaneous submissions. Em dashes. And wondering whether they prefer a second ‘s’ after the apostrophe on possessives when they’re associated with a character whose name also ends with ‘s’?
Giving myself a week to do this (and when I say ‘a week’, I really mean ‘the space free within a week after I deduct my full-time-job and other commitments like eating, exercising and personal hygiene’) was ambitious. I’m quickly realising it’s going to take much longer – and even then all I have to look forward to is a couple of months wondering why they haven’t called to welcome my submission with open arms: Maybe they didn’t receive the file? Maybe their internet got cut off because they spent all their money funding a sick brother’s medical bills? Maybe the plane the submission was sent on went down in the Bermuda triangle and now there’s a castaway somewhere wondering whether to use it to start a fire???
If you’ve been through this process before, you’ll know what I’m talking about – and if you haven’t, you will soon enough. In the meantime, I’m celebrating the fact that I’ve sent at least a few of them off with the smug, self-congratulatory-but-highlighter-marked face of someone who went into literary battle and survived.
April 3rd, 2012 — Year of the Novel
Where is the line between story and memory? Our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, has some thoughts…
Nowadays, the years fly by. But for a seven year old, a year represents a substantial portion of life, or at least life-so-far. So when I arrived at a new primary school a year after most of the other students, it became clear I’d missed a lot. Two students were already married (a brief peck on the cheek had taken place in the corner of the playground and afterwards everyone present had celebrated with lamingtons), the class had gained – and lost – a pet bird (who met with a traumatic and public end) and there had been two high-profile instances of pant-wetting.
My new friends told me these stories, over and over, until they became part of the mythology of the playground. Sometimes the storyteller would forget that I wasn’t there that year and include me in their account anyway. After a while, I knew the stories so well they became almost my own – I still think about them as part of my narrative. They’re like adopted memories.
Now, I’m writing about a character who is unable to forget, and as part of this process I need to create a lifetime of memories for someone else. It’s a process that keeps taking me back to that arrival at a new school and the way the class shared their collective recollection of events with me. As I’m writing Nick’s history, little elements of my own experience invariably creep in, intertwine with his. Memory is unreliable at the best of times and, just like all those years ago, it’s becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between which stories are mine. Which I’ve appropriated. And which I’ve loaned to someone else.
It makes me wonder: Is it possible to write without investing yourself and your experiences in your stories? Feel free to comment – I’d love to know what you think!
March 20th, 2012 — Year of the Novel
Who wins in the fight between writer and character? Read on as Our Year of the Novel Blogger, Caro, comes into conflict with a man named Nick…
My protagonist and I had our first big fight this week. It was over something silly – but then, I suppose it always is.
I had been mapping out the broader plot and summarising my scenes. It’s a process that’s both tedious and exciting. Tedious because it involves a lot of red lines, false leads and questioning of my sanity; exciting because for the first time I can start to see the novel come together as real possibility. It was beginning take on a shape and momentum of its own, to feel real, and I was enjoying myself.
But in the middle of it all, my lead character interrupted my self-congratulations.
“That’s a terrible idea,” he said. “I’d never do something like that.”
Now this might seem like a bold and stupid thing for a fictional character to say to his creator. I’ve got to admit, I considered throwing a particularly nasty hurdle into the plot to teach him a lesson. A nasty bout of food poisoning, perhaps, or a soul-crushing rejection from an on-again, off-again lover. It would certainly be satisfying to yell “THAT’LL SHOW YOU, PROTAGONIST” as I inserted the scene. “I BET IT’S THE LAST TIME YOU QUESTION MY AUTHORITY”.
But as tempting as this was (especially for a busy writer who was doped up on cold and flu medication), I paused for thought before retaliating. The thing about Nick is I gave him all his characteristics. I needed him to develop certain traits to help him emerge from the final chapters and challenges victorious. He had to be stubborn. And he had to learn to fight for things. Maybe it’s inevitable he’d turn around and use those traits on me.
And here’s the funny thing: I enjoyed the fight. Fighting with real people is messy – it’s loud and emotional and it feels strange for days after. But fighting with Nick was wonderful. Not because he’s forced me to make a lot of complicated changes to make to the storyline – but because he’s actually right. And because having him surprise me and start writing his own actions means he’s growing more and more real too.
March 6th, 2012 — Craft of Writing, Writers, Year of the Novel
Why bother writing novels in the first place? Our Year of the Novel Blogger, Caro, comes up with some answers in her latest post.
Sometimes when I tell people I’m writing a novel, I can see a question forming in their minds. The honest/brutal ones ask it aloud, but even the polite ones are thinking it: Really? You’re writing a book? Isn’t that a bit crazy, you know, given the state of the industry?
It’s no secret that the way we engage with books has changed over time. The hard-core among us still flock to second-hand book stores to get a whiff of the scent of aging paper, but just has many people are snuggling up with their Kindles and e-Readers to get their literary fix. I’m more of a paper-and-ink advocate myself, but I also understand the attraction of a portable electronic library. What I struggle to understand is the people who don’t read at all – and let’s face it, there are enough of them to fuel plenty of talk about the death of publishing.
People are always telling me they don’t have time to read – and I can certainly identify with that. But between our work schedules, families, relationships, exercise regimes, household chores and social engagements, I still think there’s a valuable place for books.
Research coming out of the United States and Canada (including studies from the University of Buffalo and the University of Toronto) suggests that although we read alone, the process facilitates social connection. Reading fiction is also linked to empathy – because novels deal with characters, their situations and how they react to them. Television and cinema may tell similar stories – but only the written word lets us really journey inside a character’s head. It shows us the interior of a person – not just the view from outside.
The Toronto study on empathy (by researcher Keith Oatley) is said to be the first to identify a clear and empirical psychological effect of reading and I think that’s exciting. Maybe that’s a lot of pressure to put on writers, but it’s also the most spectacular opportunity. And in an age when everyone seems to be rushing around trying to pare down their to-do lists, it’s worth considering what the return is on the time a reader invests in your work.
And, it’s also a great excuse to give yourself a little break every now and again to imagine life through someone else’s words.