A Cottage in the Country

Two weeks ago today, I answered an ad for a granny cottage. It was partly furnished and sounded perfect. I was able to go and see it that morning and everything about it felt good. The owners are a friendly, generous retired couple and I liked them both immediately. We shook hands on the deal and arranged that I would start to move in three days later, when my sister, brother-in-law and I all had the day off.

That Thursday was a long process and involved the hire of a vehicle to transport the larger pieces of furniture – my grandfather’s hand-carved dining table, the big book case my father made for me nearly forty years ago, and two tall solid wooden bookcases that I wouldn’t go anywhere without.

We also began to move my smaller pieces of furniture, and some of the boxes, in three cars. That carefully packed Move Cube I loaded with such precision three years ago contained a lot more stuff than most people would imagine. Somehow, when you are saying goodbye to the only life you’ve ever known, and the country of your birth, you manage to squeeze a lot of stuff into the available space, in the hope of replicating at least part of that familiar life, in a new country.

I guess most humans gather more stuff over time than they think they have, and I’m no exception. Despite the fact that I’ve been living in a room in my sister’s house for three years, I’ve managed to acquire rather a lot of things.

The next two days were spent at work, with a bit of cleaning and measuring of the new cottage to make sure I knew where everything would fit. I don’t like to shuffle it around physically, so I do it all on paper first to get the right fit. Scale drawings are second nature to me after a lifetime spent in the theatre.

Three days later we all had Sunday off, and the rest of the stuff was moved in the cars. The last two items to move were the most precious of all – my two cats. I unloaded them into their new home after dark, plied them with catnip and food, and waited while they sniffed, ran around and eventually settled down to sleep on the familiar duvet covering my bed.

By last night – a week after that final move – most of my books had been unpacked and my new place was looking like the home I always imagined I would have here in Australia. It’s a medium sized cottage on a large property, just on the edge of horse country, and yet only twenty minutes away from work.

All five houses in this lane are old and huge, and the neighbourhood is quiet. The trees are tall and the birds are gloriously noisy. A cottage in the country is what I have always wanted, and it’s what I’ve got.

Soon I will have no excuse not to pick up my novel and write…

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Light at the End of A Very Long Tunnel

Six weeks ago, the veggie shop where I used to work closed down. The following day I called my boss at my other casual job in the hardware store to tell her that I was available for more shifts. She responded immediately with more shifts to keep the proverbial wolf from my door.

Three weeks later, inspired by this, I broached the subject of part time employment, letting her know that I was definitely interested in something more permanent, should such a position ever become available. Once again she responded positively, offering me a 30-hour per week contract. I signed that contract the next day, and my new position started the following week.

So for two weeks I’ve been doing what I’ve been trying to do for the past year and a half: working most of the week at a job I enjoy, and for a steady, assured income. That hypothetical express train I wrote of last month – the one that Julia Cameron describes in The Artist’s Way – is speeding up and delivering the goods.

At last there’s light breaking through at the end of this long, long tunnel!

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends…

For a short month, February has been rather busy. The first ten days played out as normal, with me still gainfully employed at the fruit and veggie shop. On the eleventh day, however, it all took an interesting turn. I arrived at the shop one Sunday morning to be told that the store was closing, and that day was its last.

In retrospect, I had seen it coming but tried to pretend that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. My boss had dropped broad hints for a few months that the shop might not last far into the New Year. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but I didn’t expect it all to go belly-up in one single day without any notice.

So where does this leave me? Well fortunately my casual job at the hardware store is going well. For the moment. My boss there has been extremely helpful in giving me extra shifts, which I love, but I know it won’t continue in this way much beyond Easter. As the weather cools towards winter, the DIY industry cools down too, for the cold months, before perking up again in springtime.

Which brings me to Henry V’s rallying cry to his troops. Once more I am launching myself into that daunting battlefield known as the job market, steeling my nerves to be cut down by cold-as-steel rejection letters, even as I leap forward to grasp at the slim chance of landing the perfect job

As much as I love my job in the hardware store, I need another part-time job to enable me to finally break out of my dependence on my long-suffering family and be on my own again. With this comes another problem: my novel-writing has ground to an abrupt halt while I concentrate my writing energies on writing and rewriting my cover letters and tweaking my resume.

I’m not drowning yet, but it is a definite setback in my plans to live my life fully in Australia. Three years ago I was packing and planning my move over here, uncertain of my future. Three years later I’m still adrift in a sea of uncertainty, treading water, and getting older while not really moving forward.

I’ve been in Australia for two years and eight months now, but it’s only in the past eight months that I seem to have moved forward. And now, just when things are gathering pace, this is a giant leap backwards.

Sometimes, I can’t help but compare my current situation (or lack thereof) with the one I left behind in South Africa. It’s a terrible thing to be without work for two years, and a truly marvellous thing to have been gainfully employed for the past eight months. Eight months ago I was beginning to despair of getting a job – any kind of job – and wondered if I would ever be able to gather some resources and move into my own place without constantly draining resources that were not mine.

Would I ever be able to afford exorbitant Melbourne rentals, buy my own car, save some money for my old age? Even little pleasures like splashing out on tea and cake with a friend seemed extravagant, always mentally counting the South African rands that were fast dwindling away at ten times the rate they would have done back in Durban. Steady income goes a long way towards alleviating those worries, and that’s what I’m working towards now.

Eight months ago I made a start, and it’s been chugging along nicely. I have some Australian dollars in the bank at last. But now it seems as if I have some very steep hills to climb, because I’m not yet where I want to be. I have to keep reminding myself that Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, likens this to being on a fast-moving train. While walking along inside a train, stumbling over objects and stepping back to let others pass, we feel as if we are barely moving. And yet, when we look out the window and see how far we’ve come, with new scenery racing by at breakneck speed, we realise that we are, in fact, covering ground extremely fast.

I hope it’s not just my advancing years which are thundering by at that speed…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 12: The Benefits of A Break

On this final day of the first month of 2018, I’m happy to announce that I spent part of that month re-acquainting myself with my partially-written novel.

I returned to my WIP on the second day of January, unsure how to approach a project I hadn’t touched since mid-April last year. I knew there were problems with this draft. At just over 50,000 words, I had only written about half of the actual story, so it lacked both pace and progression. I had thrown far too many words into it during the previous November’s NaNoWriMo, but with that long over, how was I to fix things?

After perusing my original synopsis and outline, I decided the best thing to do was to see what I already had and make notes about what worked and what didn’t work. So I began a read-through with minor edits. If something jumped out at me in a bad way and was small enough to tweak, I tweaked. If it needed major surgery, it was highlighted in red on my corresponding outline. I had already started a list of things to fix the previous April, and this list now expanded as I read.

I’ve worked my way through about half of the text so far, working on it when I can, and trying not to leave long gaps between the days on which I tackle it, because I don’t want to lose continuity. I think it’s going well so far, but the truth moment will be when I reach the point at which I stopped last time. I’m hoping that by then I will have enough notes to help me to make the decisions about what to go back and fix before carrying on to complete the full manuscript.

Of course I really want to get the whole thing down, because nothing thrills me more than that moment when I complete a first draft, before the hard slog of transforming it into an actual readable novel begins with the second draft and goes on for however many drafts it takes. However, it’s pointless crashing on through this draft if the first half doesn’t hang together well enough to make a solid foundation for the rest of the story.

What have I learned so far, from doing this?

  • As much as I’m grateful to NaNoWriMo for helping me write over 50,000 words in 30 days, part of me wishes I had taken longer and written less, because it would have made more sense and there wouldn’t be so much to undo now, before moving on.
  • It’s always good to take a break from something which you threw down on the page in a rush of 30 days. Many writers agree that the longer you leave a manuscript to sit before picking it up again, the more likely you will be able to read it with new eyes and see the mistakes with startling clarity. Taking a break gives you a better perspective on how it reads, what it’s all about, and how engaging it might be for readers in the future.
  • Don’t make any rash decisions while reading through. It might sound easy to delete half the text or start over completely, but burying myself in it and surrounding myself with my own words is helping me to find my voice for this piece.
  • This manuscript isn’t as bad as I had feared, and parts of it are definitely going in the right direction. My belief in it has been restored, not undermined. Now I just have to bring the rest of it into line, and then complete it.
  • Don’t rush it. There are areas of historical research that I am really keen to read up on, and this time I won’t be churning out a daily word count at the expense of sacrificing my research time, which was part of the problem back in November 2016.
  • My Dad always used to say, “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.” I love the story idea for this novel, and it’s definitely worth doing it properly. I long ago decided that I could never be one of those authors who spews out a new book every few months, or weeks. This one will take as long as it needs to take, it deserves my full attention, and I’m not prepared to compromise on it. I love this book, and I’m going to make it work!

Writers and readers out there – what do you think about the benefits of taking a break and returning to a WIP with new enthusiasm? I highly recommend doing it.

Life is Like A Novel. . . Sometimes

I’ve been doing a fair bit of research into novel structure lately, while trying to get my life on track and back into some kind of routine. However, not much in my life seems to be running according to plan, despite my best intentions. Exasperated, at one point I silently declared that my life was like a bad novel because everything kept going wrong.

And then I realised that this did not denote a bad novel, but an interesting one, full of drama, missed opportunities and plot changes which constantly evolve, thus motivating the characters to do something they might not have intended to do before.

(The only trouble with this plot is that it’s too indistinct and I have no idea where it’s all going to end up before the – I hope! – happy ending. Maybe this is how pantsers work?)

While it can be distressing to have too much drama in one’s actual life, this is the best thing for characters in novels. No one likes to read a novel about a character who has all his ducks in a row and his life perfectly planned, because that’s just too boring to read about. It’s fine to start a novel like this, but within a few pages there needs to be a catalyst that changes everything and throws all his plans into disarray, making him run constantly through the rest of the book, making new plans, troubleshooting, and generally trying to catch his breath before the next onslaught of plot points.

As writers, we have to capture the reader’s interest from the start, and then hold onto it while we fling them along the roller-coaster of the protagonist’s life, making then root and cheer with the highs, commiserate with the lows, and worry about the dangers.

All things considered, my life is not as dramatic and topsy-turvy as the lives I map out for the characters in my novels, but thinking about this did help me to put my own problems in perspective and give me a bit of distance from them.

It also gave me the motivation I needed to start thinking about my current WIP and what I’m going to throw at my characters in the New Year when I finally get time to carry on writing.

What about you? Does your life read like a bad novel? Or like an exciting one?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 11: Unpacking It

My love of writing has grown from my love of reading, and like many writers, I write the kind of books I would love to read. In my early years of writing, I enjoyed several novels by Bernard Cornwell, and took some valuable writing advice from his website.

To paraphrase, he said that when you want to understand how something is made, you take it apart, and so it is with novels. Pick a novel you love, one that you wish you had written because it resonates deeply with you long after you’ve finished reading it. And then unpack it.

I’m not talking about the way we did back in English literature classes at school or university, but in the way a writer needs to. The story, the structure, the way characters get themselves into situations and why, and how long it takes them to get through the path of obstacles you have created for them.

This is the eleventh in this series of blog-posts about writing a novel, and what I’ve written in the previous ten all have relevance, but this is where the fruits of those come together in a loose mesh which can be tugged, stretched and made to fit by doing some research and a bit of juggling. The best way to analyse your own novel is by comparing it to novels that you wish you had written. What is their secret? How did those authors manage to hit all the right buttons in exactly the right places? Unpack it and see.

I have always loved the movies, and long before I started buying books on writing, I bought books on how movie structure worked. Many of my favourite books on writing are still the ones about screenplay structure, and much of what I now think of as my checklists and story patterns for writing my novels come from reading those books.

I always have: a three-act structure (Screenwriting for the 21st Century by Pat Silver-Lasky); a hero’s journey (The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler); a sequence of sequences (Screenwriting: the Sequence Approach by Paul Joseph Gulino); and a beat sheet (Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder). From these I have, over the years, devised my own basic structure, and now that I’m struggling with the ratios and proportions of my latest novel, it’s Blake Snyder’s beat sheet that I’m using to analyse (and hopefully fix) the problems I’ve encountered.

Following Bernard Cornwell’s advice to new writers, spend some of your precious writing time unpacking three or four novels you’ve loved and wish that you’d written. Try to use works from different authors, all of whom have written in the genre you love to read and are writing in.

Re-read each novel carefully, notebook in hand. Read like a critical writer, not like a loving reader. How long does it take to reach the catalyst or inciting incident? How long does the hero debate before making the decision to take action? At what point do the Bad Guys start to turn even nastier? Is there a significant Midpoint which either foreshadows the outcome or gives the reader the exact mirror-image of what the ending will be? Which scenes are written in full, and which are summarized to move the action along at a faster pace? How long is the third act, or finale?

Knowing the novel because you’ve already read it at least once, pinpoint exactly when and where each tiny slice of foreshadowing takes place. A master craftsman plants various ideas and hints throughout the entire novel, in such a way that the reader sees the fruition of those seeds as being the perfect denouement and not as a nasty, unrelated, out-of-left-field surprise. Master storytellers also weave an undercurrent of tension throughout, which we glimpse at appropriate moments – a ticking clock, a war or revolution taking place in the background, and so on. Make notes on how they do it.

Another thing to make notes about is how subtle the love scenes are. My current favourite love scene is in one of the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters: The Falcon at the Portal. It is 60% of the way through the text, and is exactly three sentences long. Because Peters has built the tension so well between the two characters up to that point, she needs only three sentences.

The first is the start of the girl’s run across the room towards him, the second is their moment of meeting halfway, and the third is later when they are curled up together in bed and he wipes away one of her tears of happiness.

Who needs more than that? No one needs more if the path to get there has been planted properly. Satisfaction all round.

Now let’s get to the horrid part of this exercise: the cringe moments when you compare these notes to your own work-in-progress. Take comfort here from the fact that your work is still actually “in progress” and it’s not finished until you’ve finished working on it. Take more comfort from knowing that those famous novels had a team of editors and beta-readers all making suggestions to the author and helping to hone the final product long before you read it.

How far into the novel is your inciting incident? How long does your hero take to make the decision to go on the journey? How wordy and purply is your love scene?

Does your Midpoint actually happen exactly at the 50% mark or does the first half of the novel seem to take forever? (Take heart, people – this is always MY big problem area!) Which scenes need pruning, and which can be reduced to summaries instead of slowing the pace?

Are your moments of foreshadowing clunky brick-on-the-foot moments that give the game away? Go back to your outline and see if you can drop hints in a more subtle, sparing way. You want readers to be pleasantly surprised by the ending, not able to foretell it before they get there. You want them to say afterwards that it all worked out perfectly in the end. Remember that, if the first page sells the novel, the last page sells the next novel…

With the notes you have made of how other authors make their novels work, and with the help of your outline, timeline and character sketches – all of which you made before you started yours – you will be able to find the right places to tweak and twist your work so that it all happens where it should, and in a much more satisfying way.

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 10: Writer’s Block

I don’t generally suffer from writer’s block. I suffer from writer-not-having-enough-time-to-get-it-all-down. Which, I suppose, is a kind of writer’s block in itself because I’m not writing what I want to write at the moment. But that’s another story…

Why don’t I suffer from traditional Writer’s Block? Maybe it’s because I’ve always been one of those writers who carries a notebook.

My notebook isn’t just for those Eureka moments when I dream up an original “what if” idea for a new novel. It’s for all sorts of bits and pieces that land in my brain from out of the blue somewhere. These can be prompted by everyday things I see around me, spurred on by my wild and crazy imagination, or they can be notes-to-self about something that might be fun to research on Google later, or just interesting quotes or book titles I hear.

Not all of my ideas lead to the germination of a new novel. They could just as easily be unrelated dead-ends, or seeds that might later find their way into a novel. They might suggest something else that will land in a current work-in-progress, or in a completely different work. When I’m in the middle of writing a novel, many of the snippets I scribble in my notebook are ideas or thoughts about my current draft. These come to me when I’m nowhere near my laptop.

For the more technologically minded, there is probably a notes app on your phone that most people would use to make a shopping list. I use mine as a second notebook if my handbag is out of reach and my phone is in my pocket, but I’m old-fashioned enough to prefer the action of actually writing in longhand with a pen.

Novels happen when interesting characters go beyond their comfort zones, on strange journeys, and collide with bizarre obstacles, forcing them to act on their natural instincts.

Writers follow the same path. We too must go beyond our comfort zones, on new journeys where we will collide with obstacles we haven’t yet researched, and we will have to use our creative instincts to solve the puzzles. Writers have the advantage over characters because a notebook can help us to decipher and work around the obstacles.

What if you find yourself blocked in spite of a notebook (or phone) full of ideas?

Try changing your time of writing each day. If you habitually write in the morning, try writing late afternoon or at lunchtime instead. Buy a rhyming dictionary and make up some silly poetry, just to stretch your writing brain in a new direction. Enter short story competitions that are worlds away from the type of stuff you usually write. I have penned some truly dire attempts at science fiction, but they helped me to find a path through to other works.

Diversion is a good thing. If nothing else works for you, then take a break from writing and let other interests stimulate your imagination. Do some cooking, gardening, painting or woodwork. Hike up a nearby mountain to smell some flowers and look at the view. Anything that requires physical labour can put your subconscious mind on the back-burner and let it stew out some ideas. Keep that notebook handy just in case…

The thing to remember about writer’s block is that it’s never permanent. It can be worrying, but only if you let it get bigger than it is. Don’t let it do that. Remember that you are bigger than the block in front of you. Of course you will write again, and probably in floods of words, to the point where you will find it hard to believe that you were once so blocked.

If you are thinking of joining NaNoWriMo in November this year, October is the month to get your ideas flowing, draft an outline and give those characters some motivation. Good luck!