In Anticipation of Creative Endeavours

Earlier this week I wrote about anticipating spring, and how this shows itself in a myriad of ways from early blossoms to the proliferation of buds. It reminded me of the importance of having something to look forward to, that intoxicating sense of anticipation.

This has resulted in a quick assessment of where I am at the moment in a creative sense. In my working life I am task oriented and love crossing items off my to-do list. Occasionally I think that if I applied the same approach in my creative life, I’d get a lot more done. This is probably true, but my creative side seems to resist any attempt to contain it in such a structured format. I know I could, but I don’t want to. Somehow it seems too important to have the flexibility to go where my creativity leads, rather than corralling it with constraints.

So what am I looking forward to, creatively speaking? I have a few ideas tucked into the pages of my writing notebooks for future projects, and these will continue to germinate as I go about my daily routines. I have two stories on the go at the moment, one of them triggered by a vivid dream. Both are longer than my usual outings and that in itself creates a sense of delight. Usually with a short story I have a fair idea of what I’m working towards, but both of these stories are taking their own sweet time to reveal the end and that makes the process quite intriguing.

Recently I have started reading a book of ten short stories with accompanying essays by the writers revealing insights into their craft and the genesis of their particular story. I have dipped in and read a couple so far and have been invigorated but have resisted the urge to read them too quickly. Some things are better digested slowly and savoured.

Another source of creative anticipation is something about me but not something that I have created. By chance I came across some interesting drawings on Instagram by an artist called Carly Zandstra. A few weeks back she posted a drawing of her head in a phrenological kind of way. There is a link to the post here which will make more sense. I was so impressed that I made contact and Carly is creating something similar for me, based on things that matter to me. I am really looking forward to what Carly has come up with – another version of my creative self.

So right now there are still stories to write, different worlds to ponder, stories to be read and a head full of ideas to fuel my sense of creative anticipation.

What are you looking forward to, creatively speaking?

[Photo: phrenology head spotted at a market]

Book Review: The Home Girls by Olga Masters

I listened to this collection of short stories a few years ago, mainly as I wended my way to work along mountain roads in winter. At the end of some the stories I simply had to turn the audio off, needing time and space to absorb the dynamics of a story, or the machinations of various characters. Masters captured the essence of a character, of life in a small town, of the many joys and devastations of every day life with such a deft touch.

Sometimes I would also refer to the written word to recapture the moment, or to check my understanding of a story. I was also struck by the physicality of her writing; her way of depicting a character’s inner world through their physical actions. These stories in particular stayed in mind.

The Home Girls. This was a short, disturbing story of two sisters preparing to leave one foster family for another, sharing a final act of defiance before they head to their new home.

The Rages of Mrs Torrens. I loved this story of a vibrant and passionate woman, who was perhaps a bit extreme in her mood swings. The timber town is enthralled by her antics, during which she seemed to lose focus of her beloved Harold and their five children.

The rage that ended all rages took place when there was an accident at the mill and poor Harold lost the fingers on his right hand. Mrs Torrens goes to the mill and climbs atop a fence with surprising grace and agility to address the men who were ‘standing there … faces tipped up like eggs towards her’. She asks them what they have done with her beautiful mannikin before going wild with a piece of timber, destroying parts of the office.

The incident is strangely not widely discussed by those present, who were deeply affected by her rage. The family left town soon after, and eventually medication was used to stabilise her mood swings.

‘During these times Mrs Torren’s blue eyes dulled and her beautiful red hair straightened and she moved slowly and heavily with no life in her step or on her face. She looked like a lot of the women in Tantello.’

On The Train. This depicts an interaction between a beautiful mother travelling with two young plain daughters and a nosy stranger. The stranger speculates about their relationship, trying to prise information. As the two leave the carriage, the mother tells the stranger something deeply unsettling.

The Done Thing. An interesting twist on the tale of attraction between two married couples. On revisiting this story recently I was struck by the contrast between the two wives: the educated but insecure Annie and the thoroughly practical Louisa. Annie’s husband Peter arrives unannounced at Louisa’s place, bearing a large pumpkin.

She laid a hand on the grey-blue skin of the pumpkin as she might have touched a beautiful fur wrap.

Peter’s delight in the homely order of Louisa’s home is evident and there are gentle hints of the attraction between them.

As she spoke she bent and pulled at some grass, ripping it away to show more rock. He bent and pulled it with her and she straightened, holding the long loop of root against her skirt as if it were a bridal bouquet. 

I was pleased to see that I wasn’t alone in finding much satisfaction in this collection of stories. There is an excellent review by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: old kitchen at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill]

Putting Creativity Out There

Over the last couple of years I have been writing fiction. This has mainly been in the form of short stories along with the first draft of a novel. The words have been growing slowly, building up in the background.

Some of the short stories have had an airing in my writing group, and this has been invaluable in a number of ways. Following constructive feedback, I have usually come away with a couple of areas to rework. I’ll admit that there are times when the feedback has been a bit challenging to hear, but usually once I digest the suggestions and revisit aspects which were confusing, the work feels stronger. I have been filing away the updated pieces, satisfied with the knowledge that they were as good as I could get them at this time.

There are lots of writing competitions out there, but I have been a bit reluctant to send these pieces out into the world. Late last year I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which made me think that perhaps it was time to let some of my work go, to see if it could stand up on its own. In my writing group there was encouragement to get our work out there with a clarion call to collect rejection slips as we set our stories free.

I had been keeping an eye on competitions through a free weekly newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre and had printed out an entry form for a writing competition in Victoria. The form was filed and promptly forgotten until I discovered it, a day or two before the closing date. Fortunately submissions were online and I picked a story that met the competition criteria and sent it off before moving on to my next thought. When I came across the competition form a month or so later I tore it up, thinking that was the end of it but at least I’d tried.

Then I received a phone call. From Victoria. A phone message to let me know that I had won first place. I listened to the message a couple of times, stunned. The judge’s comments on the website said my story was charming and well-constructed. I felt giddy with delight. My story, inspired by a podcast about the vital role played by memorial halls in small country communities, had been good enough. You can find the story here.

So I will continue to create and dream and polish and put my work out there. I have recently come across the following in Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. It sums up how to behave as an ambitious writer:

The ambitious writer doesn’t hide her short stories in a drawer when she completes them, she sends them out. She starts with The New Yorker and works her way down. She doesn’t hesitate to approach a successful writer and ask questions, or follow an agent into the elevator so she can give a pitch. Even if she’s shaking in her Hush Puppies, she goes after what she wants. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, getting lucky, a chance encounter, a fortunate happenstance – all these might play a role in getting what you always dreamed of, but the ambitious writer is the one with energy and fortitude and stick-to-itiveness that the Elmer’s folks would like to patent.

Do you let your creative work go out into the world?

[Photo: three green owls]

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 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]

Stuff and nonsense*

Lately I’ve been doing a bit of paper shuffling. Well, more like trying to sort out the reams of papers relating to my writing that I’ve managed to jam into a filing cabinet which is threatening to explode.

By nature I like to keep things, and with my writing I like to keep a hard copy to hand. When I’m editing my work, I still prefer to print it out, although I can edit online if I have to. I do try to read my writing aloud – it is staggering the things that you find after reading and editing a couple of times, regardless of how careful you think you are being throughout the process. Online spelling and grammar checks aren’t always entirely accurate, or they may not be able to cope with the context of what is being expressed.

I recently polished off a short story that started out a year or two ago with a ten minute writing prompt. In a folder I have the typed copy of the writing exercise consisting of about 300 words. Then I have a working draft or two of the story, with various markings and scribblings of the pen as I edited and tinkered with the work. There is a copy of the version I submitted to my writing group for feedback. There were pertinent points raised, and I have marked this copy with the suggestions and corrections. Then I have my polished draft of about 1500 words.

Why do I keep so many versions? Thankfully I don’t keep every version I print, but I try to keep a copy of the major edits, just in case I slice out something substantial that I want to reinstate later, or use somewhere else.

Another way to manage this electronically would be to save the various versions as they are edited. I have a vague memory of an established writer being interviewed and saying that all the sections that were cut from the novel during the editing process were put into a separate document so they could be revived or reused if required.

I may not need to go back and revisit the various drafts of a story, but there is a degree of comfort in knowing that I have it filed away. In the future if am stuck on something I can follow the broad strokes of my  working method if required.

What do you do with your working copies?

*With a nod to the song Stuff and Nonsense by Split Enz, with a beautiful version by Missy Higgins also available.

[Photo: detail of stained glass door at the Hydro Majestic showing a variety of styles]

Put Your Stamp On It

It is inevitable that after a while there is a consistency around the voice in your writing. There are words that you tend to use, sometimes even a similarity in the kind of characters that you create. This isn’t necessarily a conscious act; it is an inherent element of your writing style.

These echoes in writing help form the voice, the viewpoint that distinguishes the writing as unique. Some writing is so distinctive that if an excerpt of prose was provided, the author could be identified without any additional clues.

Perhaps it is due to the maxim ‘write what you know’. Opinion varies as to whether this is a good approach or whether a more adventurous path is recommended, but what is familiar to the writer comes through what is written, even if it is only through small details.

Recently I was looking through some of the short stories that I’ve written. In about a third of them there is at least one dog, and sometimes there is more than one. In most instances this wasn’t a deliberate plot decision; they just seemed to wander into my writing. There are other animals as well, but for me dogs do seem to have a habit of turning up on the page.

This is probably due to the sighs of my mostly patient pup nudging my subconscious as I’m writing early of a morning. The more rascally dogs that appear would be when he’s doing his border patrol, advising all and sundry that this is his space. He seems to leave paw prints on my work from time to time.

Now that I’ve identified this element in my writing, I will be more aware of it. This doesn’t mean that dogs will cease to feature in my writing; I love dogs and this will continue to seep through in my stories. But now that I know, I can use this where appropriate to reinforce my writing voice.

What leaves a mark on your writing?

[Photo: signage at entrance to council depot at Rydalmere]

The solution is seldom where you look for it

When it comes to writing fiction, my natural inclination is the short story form. It is a self-contained slice which can cover the transformation of a person or situation, allowing for amazing depth within a confined word count. My starting point is often a writing prompt, a what if, a snatch of conversation or something that I’ve glimpsed.

Early on my journey of writing short stories, I read an interview with a short story writer who said that she took months to write a short story. This surprised me initially, but the more I thought about it, and the more I write, the closer to the truth it is for me. Sometimes I can dash off a first draft that feels deceptively complete. It is the euphoria that comes with writing, particularly whilst in the zone when words seem to appear on the page in a flurry of ink. But it is best to put it aside and come back to it in a day or two, or longer if needed. Some perspective is required to see if the piece really holds together as it should or whether some tweaking or major re-writing is required.

It is easy to become impatient and settle for what you have written, telling yourself it is the best you can do. But there is usually room for improvement and you need to give yourself, and the work, some time for this to happen. It is like giving your subconscious a special project to work on: clearly list what you need to revisit (a saggy middle, a lacklustre conclusion, a twist that isn’t quite right) and leave it to get on with it.

Meanwhile, get on with your life. Start another story or work on a longer project, go and do the grocery shopping or walk the dog. The brain continues to rifle through the options, and will come up with ideas and suggestions as you continue on living. Some of my best fixes have come whilst doing something completely unrelated to writing, such as hanging out laundry, being on a conference call at work or walking the dog. It is invigorating when the idea seeps through, you test it mentally for soundness and realise that it will work.

How do you solve problems in your writing?

[Photo of the railway viaducts near Lithgow, NSW]