Short Writing Works

Every now and then a challenge comes up to write a piece within a very tight word count. These tend to be part of a writing prompt or contest, and they can provide a good opportunity to flex a different kind of writing muscle. Having a theme to work towards is also a creative challenge, setting parameters that provide a sense of direction for shorter work.

Recently I came across a piece that I wrote last year. The requirements were to write no more than 25 words, and the work had to include ‘winter’, ‘writer’ and ‘silhouette’. This is what I came up with:

A hunched silhouette

Pen gripped tightly

The writer crafts

Her work nightly

Hours are lost

Worlds splinter

As she creates

Stories of winter

I also had a go at a writing challenge put out last year by wonderful mystery writer and blogger Margot Kinberg. This one was limited to 50 words and I used the word count to set a crime scene where something went wrong.

No-one told him about the dog. He’d had a clear run. The so-called secure complex was barely a challenge, the target easily despatched. The dog had been in the lounge room, cowering. He knew he had to get out, timing was everything. But he couldn’t leave the dog.

There is something about writing in a condensed format that is really satisfying. Another 25 word challenge has been issued by the Australian Writers’ Centre, this one with the words ‘victory’ and ‘violin’ to be included. I’m off to have a scribble – it is hard to resist a writing challenge!

Do you enjoy writing very short stories?

[Photo: Avenue of Honour, Ballarat]

Spinning Yarns: Creative Collaboration

Recently I attended a talk by Marilla North, author of Yarn Spinners. This is the first instalment of a trilogy focusing on the life and times of Australian writer Dymphna Cusack. Creative endeavours between women, and in particular the weaving and creation of stories through collaboration, is illustrated through letters between Cusack and Florence James, as well as correspondence with their contemporaries. The novel written by Cusack and James, Come In Spinner, won a Daily Telegraph manuscript competition. The competition was during the period of the broadsheet circulation wars of the 1940s with a prize of £1,000 on offer.

But the Cusack/James novel was much larger than the newspaper expected: the intention was to print the winning entry in two weekly instalments – an incentive to further drive circulation numbers. Attempts to reduce the novel size, initially submitted at 120,000 words, were not agreed to by the authors, and it ended up being printed through a London publisher when the manuscript was released by the Daily Telegraph three years later. The size of the manuscript wasn’t the only issue: its portrayal of abortion, war-profiteering, prostitution, black marketeering and the role of women during wartime was regarded as extremely controversial at the time.

Cusack and James lived in the Blue Mountains for a spell, moving towards the end of the Second World War to a cottage in Hazelbrook. North gave an overview of the household of two women and a clutch of children with regular visitors from the city and further afield. This included Miles Franklin bringing up bantam chickens for their mountain garden. Cusack had collaborated with Franklin previously to write Pioneers on Parade. The hallway in the house was used to assist with managing the book structure: newspaper articles from the week in which the novel was set were pasted to the butcher’s paper lined along the hallway, the real events forming a backdrop for the  novel.

This was the second project that Cusack and James had worked together on: the first had been a children’s book called Four Winds and a Family. James later recalled that they each contributed chapters, ‘did some editing patchwork’ and realised that their writing matched well enough. The same approach was used for the novel. Cusack, who suffered from health issues (neuralgia, later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis) would dictate as James typed, and James would edit and write when Cusack rested. The arrival of a dictaphone for Cusack speeded up the project.

There is a link to the website for Yarn Spinners here, and The Australian Collection: Australia’s Greatest Books by Geoffrey Dutton also provided interesting background on the creative collaboration between Cusack and James. There is an excellent post by Michael Burge providing further insight into the time James and Cusack spent in the mountains here.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project?

Writing Prompt: Pessimist and Optimist

I love a good writing prompt. They have a way of taking you somewhere entirely unexpected, or viewing something familiar with a different perspective. At a recent writing group session, one of the prompts evoked insight into the creative tension that I feel all too often. It is set out as pessimist and optimist.

Prompt: I reached for a glass (or cup) and let my inner pessimist and optimist fight it out.

Pessimist:  There’s no point in trying. You might as well give up while you’re ahead.

Optimist:  But what if this is the start of something great, something that we’ve been striving towards all these years? I know we can do it. It only needs a bit of effort.

Pessimist:  Effort? That seems like hard work to me. Is this just going to be yet another of those fanciful notions that you have which requires time that we don’t have or skills that we lack and don’t have the capacity to develop?

Optimist:  I don’t know why I even ask for your input. You are such a glass half-empty kind of thinker. 

Pessimist:  And talking of glasses, how about you pour a bit more alcohol into this one? It might change my viewpoint.

Optimist:  That’s the way. Here you go, you drink up while I remind you of some of the excellent things we’ve managed to achieve when we pull together, rather than apart.

Pessimist:  Steady on. Don’t get too carried away. It’s going to take more than a glass or two to forget all the failed attempts you’ve got us started on.

Optimist:  But there wasn’t anything like this opportunity. And I can think of loads of times when my ideas and energy have resulted in great changes. 

Pessimist:  All I can think of is the littering mess of failures and half-baked schemes. And who’s got the energy to try anyway? All this talking is making me sleepy. (Snores).

Optimist:  (Quietly) So that’s a yes, then? No reply means yes. That’s my rule. Looks like we’re going to learn to crochet after all.

The above is alarmingly close to my decision-making process on a regular basis, with enthusiasm trying to outlast practical limitations. And whilst I can knit, crocheting remains beyond my powers of coordination.

What is your internal monologue like with new creative challenges? Optimistic, or otherwise?

[Photo: one of the bars at the Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath]

 

Ekphrasis: a writing technique

This Greek word relates to writing that is effectively triggered in response to art or music. I came across the word by chance in a Writer’s Digest article and discovered that it is an ancient concept with many adaptations and interpretations.

As a tourist in Edinburgh years ago I came across a book of poems and stories inspired by works in the National Galleries of Scotland. The book contained beautiful replicas of various artworks along with pieces that had been inspired by art. It was a glorious mix, providing a variety of viewpoints into what can be interpreted or instigated by taking the time to look at art and engage your imagination. The book is one of a number of works published following a competition originally devised to raise awareness of the various collections “to encourage writers to find imaginative links, from the personal to the universal, between art and the written word”. You can find out more about the competition here.

Years ago I used to regularly visit the Art Gallery of NSW. How I loved entering the grand building after walking through the lush green lawns of the Domain, taking shade from the gracious old trees. The tiled entrance to the gallery, skirting past the information desk and heading into the permanent collection, looking for old favourites before discovering new installations. There were many that I loved, and can still imagine them clearly years later. These included Cymon and Iphigenia by Lord Frederic Leighton, Across the Blacksoil Plains by George W Lambert and The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon by Sir Edward John Poynter. I also enjoyed the Australian gallery, becoming increasingly familiar with the styles of John Brack, Margaret Preston, Brett Whiteley and others.

What I am going to do now, though, is take the time to look through my collection of books from the works of galleries that I have visited and use them as the basis for writing prompts. Some of these may grow legs and expand into short stories or something even larger. They offer a window into another time and place, an alternative reality.

Have you ever used a piece of art as the source of creative inspiration?

[Photo: spent jacaranda blossoms on stairs at Old Buttery, Bellingen]

Ready, edit, go?

Back in July I finished the first draft of my novel. I can still recall the sense of puzzled joy at typing ‘The End’. It seemed so final, but there was a part of me that knew it was just the beginning. After printing a copy, I tucked the manuscript aside, happy to let it rest. I told myself that I needed perspective, and there had been a few short story ideas buzzing about my head that I wanted to explore. Oh, the heady delight of short stories which can be written relatively quickly, edited and tweaked, and feel finished. How I’d missed them.

But now the time has come when I need to get serious again and start phase two of the novel. I had managed to complete about half the novel during NaNoWriMo last year, and as November approached I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to participate this year. Instead of creating another tract of words that could form part of a novel, I was going to focus my energy on finishing what I started. I am usually a finisher, and the incomplete novel kept tugging at my elbow.

But where to begin? An online search on editing a novel brings up a veritable avalanche of responses. These vary from vague outlines to incredibly detailed steps which if faithfully carried out over 31 days will result in a novel that is fit to make its way into the world. The best approach for me will fall between the two extremes.

My plan is to read my novel. This sounds obvious, but what I want to do is read it in its entirety, avoiding my usual impulse to edit as I go. I want to revisit the themes and broad arcs of the story. A couple of weeks after finishing the first draft I was walking my dog when it occurred to me that the person that was the main character in my mind hadn’t developed or changed quite as much as another character. What if I had the wrong main character? These are the thoughts that come to mind when I think of cracking open the manuscript, and they could be just the tip of the iceberg. Or it could be better than I think.

What I want is clear in my mind. I want to get the novel to a point where it is ‘finished’ enough to pass on to a beta reader for feedback. I want to get it to the point where I feel that I have done all that I can to make it as good as it can be. I know that this process will not be easy, and that it will take time that is increasingly difficult to find, but I also know that this is something that took months to create and it deserves the application of time and energy in order to complete it. In essence, I need to do the work.

I know that I’ll get there. Now I have moved on from being overwhelmed by the scope of it, it feels less daunting than before. I’m finally ready.

How do you approach big creative tasks?

[Photo: waratah spotted at Blackheath – they are glorious beacons this time of year]

A Creative Check-In

Last week I posted a creative checklist which encouraged building a sustainable writing practice that I had come across in the Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers by Judy Reeves. This week, I’m going to check-in and see how I’m travelling.

  1. Identify yourself as a writer. This is something that I’m getting better at, and blogging has helped more than I would have thought in regards to my writing identity. I now include ‘writer’ as part of my persona, rather than keeping it tucked away as something private. 
  2. Give yourself affirmations claiming yourself as a writerOn the filing cabinet next to my desk there is an affirmation picked out in magnets: You Are A Writer. I could do a bit more of this to keep it front of mind.
  3. I have a writing space, a sacred place. This one is a big tick. I have a small study with an old wooden desk where I do my best creative work. I can, and do, write where I can, and at home I’ll often write at the kitchen table or somewhere in the sunshine, but turning up at my desk means I’m writing seriously.
  4. I have the tools, materials and support to write. Another tick. I have a stash of stationery as well as technology at hand. I subscribe to literary journals and belong to the writers’ centre in my state. I also listen to podcasts about writing when I’m on the move.
  5. I have writing friends to write and talk with. This is also true. And they write across different genres and formats which makes for some interesting conversations and approaches to writing.
  6. I do writerly things. Yes, I do. I belong to a writing group, I go to readings and workshops when I can. I like reading writers who write about writing.
  7. I write to writers whose work has impacted me and thank them. Not so much. But I like the idea of it and social media has made it easier to do this than ever before. I’ll add it to my to-do list.
  8. I make time for my writing on a regular basis. Yes, I do.
  9. When I can’t keep my writing date, I acknowledge why and reschedule. Usually, yes.
  10. When I’m consistently breaking writing appointments, I review why and make necessary changes. This usually falls into the category of life getting in the way. I tend to pause to prioritise what I do have time for, and ensure that there is a bit of writing time carved out. I am happier when I write, so why wouldn’t I?
  11. I put my writing time high up on my priorities list. See above. I’m much nicer when I’m happy.
  12. I set aside enough time to build consistency. I think so. Part of me thinks I could put more time aside but I have to be realistic as thinking that I can spend X hours every day isn’t realistic at this point of my life.
  13. I also create special times for writing. I have been trying this out with larger pockets of time for bigger writing projects and it definitely helps.
  14. I write. This one seems kind of obvious but a big learning in the past year in particular has been around getting something down as you can edit, tweak and improve what you’ve written, but if you don’t actually write there is nothing to work with.
  15. When I’m stuck, I find out what’s holding me back. This is another work in progress. It can take me a while to realise I’m circling a problem but I’m getting better at picking up on procrastination and addressing the cause so it doesn’t become an insurmountable obstacle.

How often do you check in with yourself, creatively speaking?

[Photo: Cowra Japanese Gardens]

A Creative Checklist

Recently I came across a section called ‘How to Build a Sustainable Writing Practice’ in the Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers by Judy Reeves (pp 147-150). A Writer’s Book of Days, also by Reeves, is one of my favourite writing books, and below is a summarised version of a checklist on building a writing practice, but it could be applied to any creative endeavour.

  1. I identify myself as a writer. When someone asks me what I do, I answer, ‘I’m a writer’. Or at least I always include it.
  2. I give myself affirmations, claiming myself as a writer: notes in my notebook or journal, in my writing space or by saying them out loud.
  3. I have a writing space. Even if I actually write all over the place, I maintain a sacred space for my writing.
  4. I have the tools and materials and support I need for my writing. I buy or borrow books about writing and subscribe to literary journals and writing publications.
  5. I have writing friends with whom I write or talk about writing or do writing things with.
  6. I do writerly things: I’m a member of a writing group, I go to readings. I read interviews with writers and listen to what they say about the craft and life of being a writer.
  7. I write to writers whose work has impacted me, and thank them. In these letters I claim myself as a writer and tell the writer what their work meant to me, writer to writer.
  8. I make time for my writing on a regular basis.
  9. When I can’t keep my writing date, I acknowledge why and reschedule.
  10. When I see that I’m consistently breaking my appointments, I review what might be the cause – chosen time isn’t right, life is too busy right now, goals too high, ___ – and make changes where necessary.
  11. I put my writing time high up on my priorities list. Not some vague ‘when I can’ or ‘if I have time today’.
  12. I set aside enough time to build consistency; if not daily, at least five times a week.
  13. I also create special times for writing – a long weekend or a retreat (with other writers or by myself) or to participate in a conference or seminar where I’ll actually write.
  14. I write. When I go to my writing space, when I set aside the time, I don’t just think about writing or talk about writing. I write.
  15. When I’m stuck, I find out what’s holding me back. When I procrastinate, I acknowledge that’s what I’m doing. When I’m afraid, I face my fear and write through it. And when all is said and done, I write.

How are you travelling with your creative checklist?

[Photo: Cowra Japanese Gardens]

Creativity On Hold

Lately I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to, and it’s been bothering me. There have been external factors which have pushed their way into the time I usually have to daydream and scribble and think up new stories or ideas. There are times when I need to be a responsible adult, which is fine, but there is a feeling of restlessness and irritation at this incursion. As if I’m existing rather than living.

So what to do? I’m sure that normal transmission will resume sometime soon, but there will be other times where what makes me feel most alive – the daydreaming, creative side of me – will be jostled aside. I don’t want to feel like I’m going through the motions so I need to have a strategy for when this creative time is only available in small sips, rather than big gulps.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had on how to make the most of the available time.

Snatch Time. The little bursts of minutes when you’re waiting for someone or something, leave the mobile alone for a moment and look around. Take in what is going on, or spot something that you wouldn’t normally see and look, really look. There might be the trigger for a character or short story idea, or you might overhear the perfect phrasing for some dialogue.

Be Spontaneous. More challenging for a methodical mind such as mine. One of my highlights in the past week involved just stopping my usual point A to point B routine to take a photo for the #MyISpy game that I have been writing blog posts about. It was less than a handful of minutes in my day but there was the exhilaration of doing something out of the ordinary, and it still makes me smile days later.

Turn Up. I’ve been tired and grumpy and yawny and generally not in the mood to do anything creative at my usual time. But I know that if I get up and write the morning pages I can shoehorn at least a bit of creativity into my day, even if it is a jumble of thoughts that I can unwind at a later date when I have a bit more time.

Accept Limitations. Things happen. Great plans become unstuck. Guilting myself won’t help but understanding that I have to focus my attention elsewhere for a while makes it easier to endure, and I know that if I jot down bits and pieces when I can, there will be something that I can work with when my time is more my own.

What do you do when life gets in the way of your creative output?

[Photo: old postal and telephone switchboard equipment at the Wyalong Museum]

 

 

Blogging – what, why and where?

I was recently asked to put some words together in response to this question for a post on the Writers in the Mist blog. This blog is hosted and managed by the fabulous staff at the Blue Mountains City Library, and includes pieces contributed by my local writing group.

One of my fellow writers, Therese Doherty, also responded to the call and you can find her interesting and thoughtful response here. Therese’s blog – Offerings from the Wellspring – can be found here. The byline for this great blog is ‘creativity and connection in a living world’ and her posts are beautifully written, considered and encourage deeper reflection.

The Blue Mountains City Library also has a blog for readers – Readers in the Mist. There are book reviews, articles, news and entertaining infographics like the one in this post.

So below is my response to why I blog, and the original post can be found here.

Why did I start a blog?

Earlier this year I gave some serious thought about what mattered most to me and creativity was high on the list. I thought starting a blog would offer a creative outlet as well as creating discipline with regular posting – it would help me to write more. Which it does!

Why did I choose the theme I did?

I thought about what I liked in other blogs and what I wanted to blog about. It came down to wanting to share aspects of mountain life as well as writing about writing. So the Monday posts are about musings from the mountains, and the writing related posts appear on Thursdays.

How often do I blog?

Twice a week. This did feel a bit ambitious at first but I have found a rhythm and actively seek new material and experiences to blog about, which fuels my creativity, which creates more blog material! Before I started I made a list of possible blog topics and I keep adding to this as the ideas roll in. I keep the blogs short – usually around 400 words – which also keeps it manageable.

Why did I choose this blog site?

My blog is on WordPress.com. I set up a blog for serial fiction there a few years back and found the site easy to use. It works well across devices which is handy as I travel a bit for work and write a lot on my tablet and phone.

What is it like to get feedback on posts?

It’s really encouraging. I have received some great feedback and it is interesting to take a step back and review what generates a higher response. One of my best posts was a writing book review (Still Life with Teapot) and anything that includes a reference to writing morning pages usually gets some feedback. I am still learning but putting in lots of tags definitely helps. I also enjoy reading and following other blogs, and provide feedback too as I know it makes my day to know that someone has taken the time to read my blog.

Tips for new bloggers?

Content matters most. Blogs are a great way to get your voice and your interests across. Some will get a better response than others, and it is important to read what others are writing too. I have come across some really great blog posts and found inspiration and learned a lot from more experienced bloggers. I now feel more engaged as an active writer in a virtual community.

If you are thinking about blogging, I’d encourage you to give it a go. There are many benefits to creating, writing and putting your work out there, and to be an active part in a writing community whether it’s local or online or a happy mix of the two.

Why do you blog?

[Photo: dog in a bathtub reading The Land for some inexplicable reason atop the newsagency at Gunning, NSW]

 

A Novel Approach

This time last week I was in a state of something close to euphoria. The reason? I had finally completed the first draft of my novel.

I had known the moment was coming. Although I am usually a planner, I had worked through the novel with only a rough idea as to what was to happen. There were character sketches and plot points at certain stages of the process along with flexibility which worked well. But as I approached the final quarter, I could feel a bit of reluctance creep in.

My creative writing to this point has mainly been in the space of short stories. There were several times throughout the writing of the novel that I was secretly pleased that I had made it this far. But it was also a bit daunting. I know, you see, that this is only the first draft. I will need to edit, to carve out bits, to write new sections. As I wrote I had to battle the urge to edit as I wrote. But once I started to tinker with the structure, the house of cards might tumble. Instead, I channeled the advice listed under ‘Finish the damn novel‘ and finished the damn novel.

It is imperfect. Some writers are famous for writing scores of drafts before they have the final, polished gem. Others seem to be able to attain perfection with hardly an edit. As the logical conclusion to the story approached part of me was wondering if the character arc development was enough. Should I up the ante for a character by doing this, or tweaking that, or is something entirely different required?

It would be easy to spend my writing time devouring the millions of words of writing advice regarding what to do now I’ve finished my draft. Instead, I’ve paraphrased Stephen King in my head and I’m going to let it sit for a few weeks. I have a copy of the draft printed and ready to edit, but I’ve resisted the impulse to pull out a pen and start scrawling amendments. It needs to breathe a bit. As do I.

There are other writing projects that I am keen to get started on, chunkier jobs that just seemed too much to take on in addition to finishing a novel. So that is the approach that I plan to take for now.

Do you have a break of sorts between larger projects?

[Photo: a glimpse inside the pavilion at the Hydro Majestic, Medlow Bath]