Tag Archive | Writing

Secrets of Scrapbooking

I started my first scrapbook in 2008. The previous May, I had spent a fun weekend with the South African Writers Circle (SAWC) on their annual three-day conference. For the first time, I had lost myself in the joy of meeting other writers, listening to guest speakers, entering writing competitions, and even winning two prizes. I was hooked!

After that weekend, I enjoyed monthly meetings and entered more competitions. At the annual awards ceremony the following January, I won the New Writer trophy, and by the time the next three-day conference rolled around in May 2008, I had decided it was time to start keeping a visual record of my writing progress.

My scrapbook advanced slowly but steadily. Each year the SAWC’s annual writing conference was documented in pictures and blurbs from the programme. The pages between celebrated my own success in writing competitions.

In addition, I made a page for each novel I finished – even the unpublished ones like Willowfountain, the story of my family’s settler history.  This was a modest page, with only the gravestones and memorial commemorating the original settlers, but with later pages, I became more adventurous.

I started to enjoy scouring the internet, printing out pictures of the places I wrote about, photos of the actors who I cast as my characters, and images of any interesting artefacts that played a role in the plot. During the writing of a novel, these are arranged across an A1 size whiteboard, but at the end of each novel, what better thing is there to do with these printed images than put them into a scrapbook?

In 2009 I did a university creative writing course and the project on which I worked was based on my own family history. I scanned and printed several photos for my whiteboard. The following year, when that project became a self-published novella, it got a page in the scrapbook as well.

In 2010, three writing friends and I shared messages and emails while we all worked frantically to finish our current novels for entry into a competition run by Penguin SA. None of us made the shortlist, but we won something more precious – we started our own small writing group to share readings and critiques once a month on the novels we were each busy writing. We called our group Writing Buddies.

In 2011, before my sister left the country to live in Australia, she made a scrapbook for her eldest daughter’s 30th birthday, commemorating my niece’s first thirty years. Because time was short, my sister needed assistance so my middle niece and I helped her to compile it. It was fun despite the bittersweet looming of her departure. Those last few days before she flew, we enjoyed several happy bonding sessions, celebrating the milestones in my oldest niece’s life.

My sister’s departure prompted my focus to shift to the wider world. In November 2011, after my third novel had been with Penguin SA for eleven months, I received the most encouraging rejection letter ever, and within two weeks I had self-published that novel on Amazon. Into my scrapbook went another page!

Around the same time I suggested to our Writing Buddies group that we should start a joint blog to get our names “out there” beyond the local confines of both Writing Buddies and the SAWC.

Early in 2012 I took my first holiday to Australia, visiting my sister after she had been in her new country for only six months. A piece I wrote while there had its debut on our new blog, Scribbling Scribes, and in due course the Scribes got a double page in my scrapbook.

A mid-year weekend writing retreat on a friend’s farm got its own page, as did another writing retreat with the same friend early in 2013, during which I completed the first draft of my next novel.

That original scrapbook has now almost doubled in size, but despite not having added a new page for several years, my scrapbooking hands haven’t been idle.

In 2014, while on my second visit to my sister in Australia, I was once again roped in to work on a scrapbook for her middle daughter’s 30th. The older niece had worked on it with her mother during her earlier visit to Australia, and together with my sister and my youngest niece, we completed it. My sister and I took it to New Zealand where my second niece had now moved with her husband, to give to her.

A few months after that, I began the harrowing process of getting myself to Australia, and both my writing and my scrapbooking fell far down my priority list. I still hadn’t done a page for my second novel which had been live on Amazon for almost two years by now, and my final weekend away with the SAWC didn’t get done either. With all my scrapbooking materials pared down and packed in a box, I knew it would be a while before I got around to any of it.

Mid-2015 found me in Australia, living in my sister’s house. A year later I finished and published my third novel, but the scrapbook remained in a box in her garage with all my other treasures for another two years.

A year ago I finally got a permanent job, moved into a cottage and unpacked all my stuff. My youngest niece, now married, was building a house with her husband. Because their house was in the area where my sister lives, and far away from the rental in which my niece and her husband lived at the time, they couldn’t track the progress of their build as often as we could. My sister decided that we should take photographs of every stage of the build and put together a scrapbook for them.

With all my boxes unpacked and loads of photographs finally at hand, I spread all my scrapbooking stuff out on my dining table, where it remained for several months.

What my sister didn’t know was that since June last year, I had already begun compiling a secret scrapbook for her 60th birthday in February this year. As far as she knew, I had started doing a scrapbook of my cats. Yes, my cats. That was the decoy album so that if my sister popped in unexpectedly, hers went into the ottoman. And if my niece dropped by to visit, the pages I was doing for hers likewise went into the ottoman. My sister and I managed to complete the house album for my niece and her husband in time for Christmas last year.

It was exciting putting together my sister’s 60th album. My three nieces and I sourced photos, images from childhood, pictures of family and friends and, mixed with a healthy dollop of love, we crammed it all into a scrapbook.

What my youngest niece didn’t know was that while we were doing her mother’s scrapbook, her mother was doing one for her. My youngest niece’s 30th birthday was coming up in March, and I was helping my sister, together with my other two nieces overseas – one in New Zealand and one in South Africa – to compile a scrapbook for her.

Last month, we presented my sister with her album, and a week later we gave my niece hers. At last we could be open and chat freely after all the months of subterfuge. No more secret scrapbooks!

My dining table is still covered with scrapbooking stuff. I love scrapbooking, and I think it’s time for me to catch up on those last few pages that still need to be done. And then I need to dust off the whiteboard and create some fresh images for the novel I’m currently writing…

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Summer Adjustments – and Bugs!

The seasons are changing here in Melbourne, and at last I’ve been able to shed the thermals and roll the heaters aside. Some mornings are still nippy, and every few days the temperature drops just to remind me that Spring is, after all, a transition between winter and summer, and we’re not quite there yet.

I’ve discovered a new joy in gardening. I have some herbs and lettuces growing in pots on my veranda, and the first crop of alfalfa sprouts on my kitchen counter is almost ready to add to my next salad. Winter bedding has been squashed into top cupboards and summer clothing pulled from storage tubs and aired. The ceiling fan has been dusted off, windows have been creaked open…

…and new bugs have found all the gaps in the screens to creep through and surprise me!

Some of my windows don’t open – warped wood, or too many coats of paint over the years have seen to that – but enough of them open to provide a cooling breeze. In addition to the view, another advantage of living on the top of a rise is that there is always a breeze.

In South Africa, the cottage I lived in for most of my last fifteen years there was cut into the bank of a hollow – not unlike a Hobbit house, although not as picturesque – and very few breezes ruffled my curtains. This was compounded by Durban’s consistently extreme humidity.

Here, my cottage is one of those old-fashioned Australian weatherboard bungalows built on stilts with slatted storage space underneath. Over the years, my landlord has dumped stuff under there, and even though weeds have grown up and obscured some of it, the wind blows through the slats (which may be one of the reasons why my floors are so cold in winter). Who knows what might be taking shelter in that crawl space for the rest of the year? No doubt time will tell.

My standard arrangement with all creepy crawlies is that they can have the outside, but the inside is my territory, because I pay rent for it and they don’t. However, despite being outside, my veranda (the only solid concrete and brick section of the foundation) is still part of my rented cottage, so snails and slugs will be severely dealt with if they come close to my lettuces. In the warmer weather, I have begun to claim this as my territory, with the acquisition of a few pieces of furniture, pot stands, more chimes and a large citronella candle to keep the bugs at bay.

Bugs must please keep away from my car as well because it’s mine. Three months ago I finally got myself a car and gave my brother-in-law his old car back. He found this one for me online and checked it out before I bought it. I love it so much because it’s small, zippy and not unlike the last car I had in South Africa. The only real difference? Instead of blue, it’s pink!

I love my life here in Australia. I sit on my veranda and dream about the lives of my characters in my (much interrupted) novel. Birds chirp, and bigger birds swoop down to chase my cat Valentine if he gets too close to their trees and nests. And rightly so – he’s in their territory out there.

His sister Galadriel doesn’t seem to want to go outside. She prefers the comforts of her home. Perhaps she knows the difference between her territory and that of others.

The other day my landlord cut the grass right up to the far fence because, he said, his wife doesn’t like snakes. He must’ve seen the look on my face because he grinned and said, “You don’t like them either?”

Too muted by terror, I shook my head. Living out in the country may have its drawbacks after all…

Easing Back into the Stream

It’s been ten weeks since I moved into my cottage, and I’m finally slowing down and getting back into a normal routine. I’ve had fun unpacking all my treasures from the past, buying some new ones, and making others to suit my new environment. In the meantime, work has carried on like a steady underflow beneath it all, satisfying my need to earn and more importantly, underlining my need to belong and carve my own path.

Winter has set in with a vengeance and my cottage is cold, to say the least. Fortunately I have two heaters and an electric blanket. I look forward to the warmer months, when I intend to expand onto the veranda which is the perfect space for writing. There are brackets on which I can hang pots of flowering plants, and my view across the garden will be enhanced by a light breeze coming up the hill instead of the winter frost, mist, and ice on my car windows each morning.

In the meantime I have hung two sets of wind chimes out there on my veranda, and the sound – as always – comforts me and reminds me of places far away and friends left behind.

Five years ago I stood at the top of a hill in KwaZulu-Natal, listening to wind chimes at the Culamoya Chimes factory and shop on the Midlands Meander with my friends Tina and Jackie. I decided on a beautiful, melodic, deep-toned one. When I packed up three years ago, it came too.

On another occasion, at The Ugly Duckling in Rosetta, in another part of the Midlands Meander, I stood on a rise with my friend Tina while Jackie was riding in a cycle race. Together we listened to the various bamboo chimes before I made my decision. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to bring bamboo into Australia, so I gave that one to Tina before I left.

Last week I found a set of bamboo wind chimes here in Australia, at Ishka, and bought it. It doesn’t have the same melodic tone, but it’s rustic and cheerful and the clackety-clack sound it makes is pleasing to my ears because it reminds me of my friends.

Life goes on, and we move with the currents and tides. Part of me thinks about the final line of The Great Gatsby, but the rest of me knows that I’m not beating against the current; I’m easing out into the stream to claim my place in the flow, and taking bits of my past with me.

Full Circle Flashbacks

One of the shreds of hope you cling to when packing up your whole life to move to another country, is the belief that one day you will get the chance to unpack it all in a new home. For me, this wheel has finally turned full circle.

Three years on, I have spent the last month unpacking my boxes, vac-bags and plastic crates into my new little cottage in the country. It’s been like Christmas. Each layer of bubble wrap unfurled has revealed treasures: some longed for, some forgotten and some only dreamed about, thinking they had been left behind.

Perhaps the most exciting boxes to unpack were those which bore the legend “Packed by Penny” on my inventory list. Three years ago, my friend Penny came to my rescue a few days before the dreaded container arrived. I waved one hand vaguely at a table top covered with teapots and general kitchen ware, and the other hand at the remnants of a display cabinet, and muttered something incoherent about wanting to take all those things with me but not knowing where to pack them. Penny did the job, and expertly too. Not a single thing chipped or broken, all of my treasures restored to me in my new little cottage, one by one.

Thank you, Penny.

 

Thank you, Tina and Bryan, for helping me on loading day, and treating me to breakfast afterwards. As you know, I couldn’t have got through that day without you.

Another special thank you to my wonderful friends Cathy and Jackie, who helped me to pack up and distribute the things that didn’t fit into that little Move Cube container three years ago. Without these wonderful ladies, I’d probably still be sitting in a tearful heap in the middle of my old cottage, unable to decide what to pack and what to leave. Cathy air freighted me two boxes of favourites without which I would have been bereft.

In the last two years or so, I may have gone a little overboard in seeking out and buying up oddments found in Op Shops to replace things I didn’t bring. I’ve searched for – and found – several pieces of Corning ware – rare as hen’s teeth since I gave all mine away. I’ve searched for – but not found – a set of stainless steel steamer pots. No matter, I made a plan with a universal steamer basket and a metal sieve. Last night’s sweet potato and rice cooked up just as tastily in the new equipment as it would have done in the old.

My new cottage is looking good now, snug and warm with new net curtains and the roll-up blinds I’ve made to keep out the winter cold. There are still a few things to unpack, but it’s a pleasure, not a chore, and I’m enjoying the process.

One day I’ll get back to writing again, but first I need a little time to revel in the fun of making a home in my new place.

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 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!