Every story takes time (and a cheer squad)

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The beautiful Ned and Musk Farm House where the magic of writing and writing friendship happens.

Two weeks ago I said to my husband that I should stop calling myself a writer. I felt utter despair with my two large writing projects. They felt too big, too overwhelming. It was the end of the school holidays and I had not done the big thinking and planning work on either of them that I thought I could have. I had been working at them five days a week for a minimum of 30 minutes a day on my work days, but it was not enough. Those tiny moments each day I spent with my writing before I started my day job were not enough to see the story as a whole and I began to doubt everything about my merit as a writer. I began to feel that working full time meant that I should give up my writing.

My two manuscripts have been redrafted a number of times and both of them need another draft (at least). One of them needed a new beat and a theme threaded through in addition to some sharpening to clear away the superfluous words. The other manuscript needs uninterrupted time to read through a manuscript assessment before I can even work out what needs to be done. Both of these things needed a big chunks of uninterrupted time (every parent and full-time worker) knows what I’m talking about here). I knew I had a week booked to write away with my writing gang, but two weeks ago I was overwhelmed and wondering if the sacrifices I make to write were worth it.

Luckily I have supportive partner and a writing accountability partner who both told me to stick at it, that I was a writer.  They both believed in me, even if I wasn’t sure I could do it. They cheered for me.

I am home now from my seven days away and I am exhausted and energised. Spending time with my writing gang has always helped me to refocus and to feel more confident in what I’m doing. It helps that doubtful voice to quieten. It reminds me that everything I am feeling is normal. This year we have not caught up as much as we used to and I am sure that this has also added to the spiral down of writing confidence.

I spent the first three days researching, reading, reacquainting myself with the manuscript. These days felt full and wonderful, but time was ticking by and I was losing myself down many rabbit holes (like the one that led me to the images below).  I worried that I would go home with nothing to show for my time away.

 

(Little sparks of joy from my rabbit hole researching. Images from https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/6-october/features/features/sewing-stories-unpicking-the-faith-of-girls-past)

I scribbled notes on cards, paper and in new documents. I decided that if I could go home with nailing what the story was really about (in the words of a wonderful teacher: What is your story really about?), how the beat would hit the pages and that I would be able to hit my early morning writing date with confidence, then that would be a win.

The first great moment was deleting the first 11,000 words. What had been running through my mind were the words: start as late as you can. Suddenly I had the energy to run with it. It felt right (don’t worry, I did put those words into another document aptly named ‘Cut’).

The next great thing was when I applied something that I always told my creative writing students. I changed the point of view from third to first (i.e. ‘She’ to ‘I’).  Just to see.

And, oh. WOW. It worked!

I am now on the roll with again. It will be a better manuscript when I finish it. I am confident of that. Will it be the last draft that goes out to a publisher? I can’t answer that. What I can say is that it takes work—lots of work—to shape a story into something that is not only publishable, but is also interesting and stands on its own. While that work is being done (which is years) every writer needs to have people in their camp who cheer for them, encourage them and remind them that they are writers whether or not their book is in the world.

 

On exhaustion, writing and other things

I have been absent from here a great deal this year, which was to be expected with starting work full time for the first time since 1997 (yes, you read that right!), but I haven’t slipped away completely. It has certainly been a juggle working, writing and managing the family, and I’m hoping that the next term is a little easier to manage.

I started the school year with a marked-up draft of my convict woman story after spending 10 hours reading it aloud (something I have never done before and was certainly a great experience — even if I was left with no voice and an ulcer on my tongue). Each morning before I started work at 8 am, I spent at least 30 minutes editing. It took me a couple of weeks to settle into the practice (i.e. where to do it), but in the end, I found a room at work where no one would disturb me. I set the goal of Easter to have it ready to send to an agent, and on the first Tuesday of the school holidays (nine days before Easter), I sent it off (hooray!). I may never hear from her, but it felt great to have hit that goal. I was also very excited to see that I received an Honourable Mention for my story, Murder by Biscuit, in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge earlier this year. This was a short story that had to be completed with eight days. Everyone involved was given three things: a genre, an action and a character. Mine was: a mystery, a medical diagnosis and a prisoner. It was a lot of fun to write even as an unfamiliar genre.

My workplace

Workwise, I embraced my new role as Resource Centre (library) Manager and Communications and Marketing Manager for a secondary school. I set goals to put the library into order, order new books and connect with the school librarian community. It felt great at the end of Term 1 to see the shelves ordered, have new books arrive and to attend my first conference with other school librarians. I made it a priority to get books in that are on the Inky Awards lists from the last couple of years, and to make sure there are plenty of diverse voices, and Australian voices. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the excitement on the student’s faces as they borrow the books.

I attended a few book launches (The Rip by Mark Brandi, The Result Result by Graeme Simsion and Small Blessings by Emily Brewin). It was wonderful to celebrate my friends who are all wonderful writers. It was even better to read these books. If you haven’t read them yet, go grab a copy and read them.

Book launches!

I also attended a wonderful masterclass in climate change writing, run by Jane Rawson and James Bradley. There were loads of great conversations that day, despite only having had a few hours sleep after my middle boy’s eighteen birthday party.

I finished the first term of school in a state of sheer exhaustion hoping that I could spend the two weeks break resting and recovering before heading back into another ten weeks work. Life, however, doesn’t always work that way. Instead, I spent the first week taking my husband from here to there to find out why he had been experiencing excruciating pain and swelling in his foot for two weeks. I didn’t in those two weeks after the negative result on the first x-ray and the first blood test that showed up with high white blood cell counts, or in the week while we waited to hear the results from the blood tests, bone scans and ultrasounds. My mind wandered to the terrible as all I have ever known of strange and unknown things like this was fatal.

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Waiting to hear why his foot hurt so much

The doctors scratched their heads and talked of gout (then crossed it off), rheumatism, and then nothing as time ticked by. Nothing was the worst. When the doctor greeted us to tell us the results of all the tests, he said he had bad news. I braced myself. I had been mentally preparing myself for this. For a life without my love by my side. For single parenting. For caring. Two stress fractures, the doctor said. I laughed. That! That’s not bad news, I said. And it truly isn’t. It will heal. He will be okay. So far from where my mind had gone. But I am still exhausted. He is still in loads of pain two weeks into wearing his moon boot, and I am now back at work without any rest. It’s going to be a long eight weeks.

Now onto my goals for the next term. I’m in that strange in-between-project writing period. I’m writing submissions for unpublished manuscript programs, writing ugly first words of short stories and trying to reconnect with my writing mates. Trying not to lose confidence in the words. In a few weeks, I’ll be off to my twice-yearly writing retreat with my incredible writing pals (Kate Mildenhall, Emily Brewin, Katherine Collette, Kim Sigley, Nicky Heaney and Venita Munir) so be prepared for some writing retreat spam.  I’m trying to get a better work-life balance so that I am not working an extra hour or more every day by setting alarms to get me out of there, and paring back my goals for the library so that they are more realistic. I’m also hoping to work out how to juggle the multiple roles that I carry there. With my home life, I need to get better at being a little more shiny rather than absorbent so that I don’t take on everything that my family need, instead, allow them to see that they need to do these things themselves. The eternal quest.

Strategies for keeping deadlines

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked about dealing with those pesky internal critical voices, and making deadlines for yourself when you don’t have any external deadlines. Today, I’m going to talk about some strategies on how to meet those deadlines.

We all know how it goes. You’ve got a looming deadline yet there are so many other things that you find yourself doing. The toilet suddenly needs a scrub with a toothbrush, the kettle could do with a polish, that nap that you’ve promised yourself for the last year needs to be taken right now. The problem is not that you are scrubbing your toilet with a toothbrush (although, I must confess that I have not yet stooped to that), it is that you are avoiding doing what you have promised yourself you will do.

The difficulty lies in the fact that it seems easier to meet other people’s deadlines or commitments you have made to other people than it is to meet your own deadlines.

So how can you meet your own deadlines, when no one is going to yell at you because you haven’t done it?

It all comes down to thinking about what works best for you; that is, what kind of person you are, and what you best respond to. Are you a list person? Are you a person who needs to stand by something once it has been said out loud? Are you a person who loves to crunch the numbers on things? Are you a person who loves to get rewards once they have completed something? You may well be a mix of all this, and then a number of strategies will work for you.

Give me a list, and I’ll get it done

list-147904_1280If this is you, then the hardest thing for you is trying not to put everything on your list (i.e. 1. Finish manuscript. 2. Send manuscript. 3. Get published) as it can seem unachievable. The best help you can give yourself is to break down what you need to get done, and look at a) what is realistic, and b) when you want to get the overall thing done.

Grab yourself a notebook or your diary and start with a list of things you need to get done in the next month to complete your manuscript. Do you need to do some more reading? How many words can you write over the next month? If you are on the redrafting stage, how far through would you like to be by the end of the month?

Now think about the next week with these things in mind. What is realistic while helping you to get to your month’s goal? Write these down for the week.

Start each day either creating your list for the day on what you are going to do to help you reach your deadline and then at the end of the day, tick them off.

At the end of the week, and then the end of the month, tick off what you have done to work towards your deadline.

Check. Done.

Once I’ve said it out loud, I have to do it or I’ll be too embarrassed

whisper-voice-clipart-1This is easy if you are good at verbalising what you need to get done, and then feel compelled to complete it lest someone asks you. The problem can be that you know this is your modus operandi, so you keep your plans quiet.

Find a buddy. Find someone that is happy to hear from you at least once a week, and will hold you accountable for what you have committed to. This often works best when it is a two-way street. Offer to be their person too. It may be best for it to be someone who understands the creative process, but isn’t essential.

Agree to what you will share each week, and when. A good base is: what I’m planning to do this week, how I did with my goals last week, what was getting in my way last week, and what I’ll put in place to try to meet my goals this week.

It should be an encouraging interaction rather than one where you feel guilty. If you are anything like me, you start the week with great intentions, only to fall too often on the speed bumps that life throws your way. That should be okay with your buddy. If not, find another.

If you can’t find a buddy, or don’t want to, and are feeling brave, you could also throw it out to the world. Say it aloud on social media and then check in at the end of the week. Tell your partner or work colleague. It doesn’t really matter who.

Numbers are my thing; I love to watch them change

pay-1036469_1920.jpgIf numbers are your thing, and you loved my last post, then I recommend that you do a few things as you will feel well chuffed as you see the numbers change. There are so many numbers that you can focus on to complete the work: minutes spent working, words written, words deleted, days worked, days to deadline, etc.

Choose the numbers that will help you to get to thermometer-151236_1280your deadline. Now think about how you want to watch these numbers change. Will a wall chart help? If so, create one that enables you to cross numbers off, or add them in. Maybe you could draw up a target thermometer and colour it in each day. This works well for visual people.

Perhaps you could use Excel to add your numbers after each writing session to see how those numbers are adding up. Microsoft Word also has some great statistics built in for those who love this (look under the File Properties and you will see Statistics).

Toggl is a great tool for measuring time spent. You can use it for free.

Put the carrot on the end of the stick, and I will follow

desktop-1985856_1920Rewards. Who doesn’t love them? The problem can be that left on your own, you might ‘accidentally’ reward yourself before you’re done. Set your milestones, and plan out some ace rewards that you will be thrilled with.

Your rewards could be anything: a massage, a magazine, a lie in the sun, a book, a read of a book, a block of chocolate, a sesh at the gym. Anything that you know will drive you to get your work done. I know folks who aren’t allowed to do anything else until they have done their three hours/500 words/scene/etc. When that it is done, whammo, off to enjoy their days.

Then make sure you give them to yourself when you are done.


And me? I use a mix of the lot. On the days I work at an office, I pop into a cafe and write without interruption for a half hour. I tick it off my list, which I do daily. I crunch numbers. I love them. I fill out my visual goals in my diary. I reward myself when I am done with a milestone. The best thing for me, however, has been finding an accountability buddy. I feel the pressure to work through what I have committed to, even if she is not that tough on me.

How do you tackle your deadlines?

This post is the last in a series about deadlines and shutting out the inner critic. If you enjoyed the posts and found them useful, please consider passing them on to others. I’d also love to hear your thoughts about these posts, or other blockers you have with your writing. 

Making deadlines

Are you good at getting things completed when you don’t have a deadline? Not many people are. If you are working as a freelancer, working on your own projects, or working on a manuscript, you might be familiar with how long these things can sometimes take. It’s always easier when someone else tells you when you need to get the work back to them. I find that if I don’t make a deadline, create lists to get things done, then I can take forever. Give me a deadline, and I’m all over it.

I have loads of friends who are writers; many have complete (and published) manuscripts, and many don’t. There are always things that get in the way of writing—you don’t need me to tell you that. I can procrastinate as well as the next person—but if you really want to finish it, you need to set your own deadlines to make that happen. There is always half an hour in a day that you can find, and sometimes it is just that half hour each day that makes all the difference.

I was thinking about this when chatting with a friend not so long ago who is trying to complete the first draft of his manuscript—with no deadline. He’s ‘onto it’, but the days, weeks, months pass by with few words actually being written. I didn’t bother talking to him about creating to-do lists as he is getting a lot done, just not the manuscript. Instead, I talked to him about making his own deadline for the first draft.

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Making deadlines

This sounds like a no-brainer, but each time I’ve spoken to people about this, it is as though a light has been switched on. If you don’t have a deadline to work to, it can stop you from actually finishing anything. When you have a deadline, and suddenly there is something to work to. But often with writing, you are your own boss with a timeline that stretches out indefinitely—especially with large projects that are not commissioned, or under contract.

I’m going to get a little mathematical here, but please stay with me (I now forgive my  Year 8 Maths teacher Mr Chau for insisting on teaching me algebra even though I couldn’t understand why I would ever need it in ‘real life’, and apologise to him for being such a painful student.).


Step 1: Set a date

Give yourself a date for when you would like to have this first draft finished. Sometimes it can be helpful to have an arbitrary date like Christmas or the end of a month. Be realistic. It takes time to write, and everyone writes at a different speed. Taking advantage of events like NaNoWriMo can be great as the communal writing can encourage you to keep up to your commitment. Maybe you can book some time in that is dedicated to writing.


Step 2: Words per week

Work out how many words you need for the whole manuscript (use the general word count for manuscripts as a guide: 80-100 thousand for general fiction, 60-75k for young adult, etc.). Now work out how many weeks there are between now and that date (let’s call it ‘A’), and how many words there are (let’s call it ‘B’).  The number of words you need to write in a week (let’s call this ‘C’) is B divided by A.

B (words left to write) ÷ A (weeks till deadline) = C (words per week)

An example of this is: Bill wants to finish his manuscript by the end of January, which is 15 weeks away (A). He has written 42,000 words, and is writing a general fiction, so still needs to write 58,000 words (B) if he wants to get to 100,000 words:

58,000 words ÷ 15 weeks = 3867 words per week


Step 3: Words per session

Now break this down to how many days a week you can write (D) to see how many words you need to write on each of your writing days.

C (words per week) ÷ D (days you write in a week) = E (words you need to write each day)

Back to that example above, Bill can commit to six writing sessions a week, so: 

3867 ÷ 6 writing days in a week = 645 words per writing session. 


When I went through this with my friend, he said that he can easily write 500 words in a half hour session. I suggested that he think about how often he could write in a week, as if he did this seven days a week (it is only half an hour a day), then he could smash out a massive 3500 words a week, and in a fortnight he’d have 7000 words, and then in four weeks, he’d have 14,000 words (etc.). Light bulb moment!


How do you push yourself to finish your first draft of your manuscript? Do you make your own deadlines? How to you then make it happen?

Thanks for popping by and reading this post. Did you have a look at how to deal with that inner critic? Pop by next week, when I’ll talk about strategies on meeting your deadline