Why writing a first draft is like having a baby

Writing the first draft of a novel is a bit like having a baby. Hidden from view, the most amazing creation is being formed inside of you, and then one day, a small slimy, mass emerges – and you instantly fall in love with it.

Who doesn’t love a beautiful pink, chubby, smiling baby? Even though your baby doesn’t quite look like that yet, you also know babies grow. You have faith in your baby, and can already imagine what it will look like in your head.

So you assume that everyone else will love your wrinkly, red newborn, which cries incessantly and smells strange – because that’s not what you see. You are already looking at your baby with the benefit of birth hormones and nitrous oxide. You know it is the most beautiful baby in the world and everyone will agree with you.

In short, you are deluded.

Writing a first draft, I have discovered, is a bit like that. Growing a book inside you is like being pregnant. So much is going on inside your head that it can begin to take over your entire life, you live and breathe it, think about it during the day, dream about it at night. But it’s all going on inside you – so no one can really understand what’s happening, or appreciate the magnitude of what is taking place.

Then one day you announce you have written a book. Plop.

Some friends will immediately ask to read it. They’re either ignorant of all of the slime and blood still covering your creation, or they just love books (or you) so much, they want to read it, even if it means having the literary equivalent of meconium dribbling onto their laps and never being able to get the smell of sour milk (and poorly formed, clichéd characters) out of their noses.

You can give your stinky newborn book to your best friend or sister or partner or mum to read, but beyond this circle, it’s best to at least wash and dress the baby book before passing it on to the next visitor. After all, you’d like your visitor to come back again and not slink away in embarrassment, wiping vomit from their shoulder, never to look you in the eye again.

And while you may be convinced your book will grow up to be as handsome as Orlando Bloom, this does not give you permission to thrust your infant novel, still in nappies, at the nearest publisher demanding they agree ‘how good (looking) it is.’

And so as writers we must allow our newborn books to grow, to develop. We must wait for them to move through the stages at their own pace, and never be impatient for them to run before they can walk, or indeed, before they can even crawl.

Personally, I am hoping it won’t take 18 years for my freshly delivered, still mewling newborn book to develop to the stage where it’s ready to take on its own life, but I am fascinated to see what happens from here, and how it will grow and change.

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100 Days of Writing

Almost six months ago I made myself a deal. Wanting an incentive to sit and write every day, I promised myself that if I wrote for 100 days between that day – the 18th of February – and my birthday, which falls mid-August, I would let myself get a Little Street Library.

I love Little Street Libraries. I keep my eyes peeled for them when I am driving around. I have seen them at churches and in laneways, outside shops and homes. My favourite is one that looks like a small red phonebooth, brimming with books and stories. I wanted my own, partly as a way of recycling books I no longer needed, and partly as a source of new reading. I didn’t even know where I would put it, I just wanted one.

I had no goal with regard to how much I would write, just the simple act of climbing out of bed at 4am or 5am or even 6am, regardless of how much light was in the sky, or how cold my legs were under my robe, and sitting at my desk and placing my fingers on the keys.

I started strongly, writing almost every day for the rest of February, and was thrilled when I had put almost 10,000 words on paper in only ten days. This was a new story, and it flowed easily. I had reached my halfway point of 50 days by the start of May, and with it a count of over 46,000 words.

Today, on August 1st, a fortnight before the deadline, I ticked off my 100th day of writing. It’s been harder to write during the winter months. It’s just harder to get out of bed. And as I have neared the end of my novel, the story has slowed down, and uncertainty of how to find closure has decelerated my speed of writing.

But I now have a first draft – an enormous first draft at 93,000 words – that is 99% complete. And in theory, I have earned myself a Little Street Library.

Except about three months ago, as we were driving past my neighbour’s house, I could see her painting a beautiful, hand made little library that she had fixed to her front wall. My heart sank. Later that afternoon I walked to her house, carrying the two big bags of books I had been saving for when I got my own Street Library. There was only a matter of metres between our houses, and even I with my deep love of books, could not justify two Little Street Libraries right next to each other.

It turns out it didn’t matter. The reward for my writing, was the story itself. It spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s and is full of both my childhood memories growing up in Perth, stories I had heard, and research gleaned from the internet. It is rich with history, from the Meckering quake to the change to the metric system. The old Coles cafeteria in the city makes an appearance, as do the swans at Perth airport.

I don’t know if the story will ever be more than just 500 pages of a Word document on my laptop. I hope so. But even though I probably will never get my own Little Street Library, I feel so proud today of my 100 days of writing. I think I might buy myself a cupcake!

A character by any other name

While my novel has been inspired by real-life people, it is ultimately fiction and so all my characters needed new names when I began to write.

A character’s name is so important, it is worn like an item of clothing that one cannot remove. It distinguishes you and discloses things about you, more than we realise. Choosing a name for my characters was an exercise in finding monikers which were historically accurate, and for some, a fun way to recognise family and friends.

My character Charles is loosely based on Walter Blair, a student who attended Claremont Training College at the same time as Doris and who sadly died in WW1. Although Walter died at the age of 21, there are a number of images of him that survive – his role in the College football and cricket teams meant there were plenty of team photos from his time at the College. This meant that I was able to use some of his physical characteristics when writing the character.

Walter needed a different name when he became a character in my book. Very little of Walter Blair’s life actually informed the character, and besides, Walter was the name I was using for my protagonist’s father. Charles was an easy decision as it was a common name of the time, and to choose his new surname I chose that of a friend whose first name was actually Blair, a moment of quick word association. This was how the character became Charles Morgan, a name that I felt was strong and somewhat refined, and could easily represent a man born into a family of well-bred lawyers at the turn of the twentieth century.

Today, while researching the second convoy of ships to leave Western Australia for the front, I discovered that there was a real-life Charles Morgan from Perth, who also was a Corporal, and who also served with the 11th Battalion, just the same as my fictional character. Real-life Charles Morgan was killed in action in France in July 1916. I also found Private Charles Morgan, a farmhand who served with the 10th Light Horse, the same Battalion as my character John.

I admit I am devastated, and disappointed with myself that I hadn’t thought to check sooner. It was a good name and will be difficult to think of my character by another, but out of respect for the real-life Charles Morgan’s who enlisted in WW1 from Perth, I now need to find a new one (or at least a new surname) for my character.

Immediately after my discovery about Charles, I had a moment of panic when I thought about my other main male character, John O’Meara. This character was loosely based on the real-life John Regan, and even though I kept the same first name, I chose another surname to represent his Irish heritage.

A quick search on the National Archives turned up dozens of John O’Meara’s who served in WW1 as well as the record of a John O’Meara who was a patient in a Queensland mental asylum. However none of them enlisted from West Australia, and so I am content to keep the name.

So now I am on the lookout for a new surname for my character – and I welcome any suggestions.

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Reference:

http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-conflicts-periods/ww1/1aif/1div/03bde/11th_battalion_aif.htm

The New Writer’s Room

Her back to the view, the new writer faces a blank wall. ‘Imagination must meet memory in the dark’, Annie Dillard wrote, ‘appealing workplaces must be avoided.’ And so despite the fresh new space which has been created just for her, a space crying out for colour and attention, the new writer assumes the position, fingers poised, no chance of a colourful distraction.

Behind her the Australian sky is raging with activity. A flock of birds flying in formation, their military precision wasted on the unseeing eye. Butterflies dance around the forgotten but persistent lemon tree. They may as well be pinned in a museum drawer, for the new writer is desperately trying to adhere to a routine, a strictness brought on by unfamiliarity.

Her time has been planned, organised down to the last full stop. An hour to ponder a character in her not-yet-started novel. An hour to peruse magazines to which she will submit as yet unwritten articles. An hour to map her thoughts on a bestselling book idea. An hour to trawl writing blogs for snippets of brilliance and good advice.

She resists the urge to turn and look at the clock on the wall. She is afraid the day outside will betray her determination to stay inside and write. She is concerned that one glimpse of the blue sky will destroy her resolve to remain a prisoner in her new room.

It is ironic that the plain and ordinary box the room was originally designed to be was forbidden by the local building planner. For reasons known only to the bureaucrat and his rubber stamp, the room had to be redesigned.

It now resembled an old cottage attic perhaps, or a French garret room. Its ceiling is angled and raked, the many junctions throwing the light in corners where there should have been none. It is a much more romantic and tortured room than the plain and ordinary box the room was meant to be.

It is perfect for the new writer to begin her craft.

But the silence is distracting, the bareness of the wall diverting. The new writer is not used to the blank canvas of time and space this new room affords her. She is used to the colour and energy of her young children. She is used to stealing moments of time at her computer propped on the kitchen table between the crayons and the half eaten apples. This new space is altogether too pure and her mind is drawing a blank.

The new writer stands and reluctantly leaves her room. She leaves behind her space of supposed work, creativity and inspiration and heads downstairs to her world of family and chaos. The house is quiet though, her children and husband allowing her today to write undisturbed, to begin her new life alone. Her fingers lightly brush the kitchen table, still covered with unfinished breakfast and half read newspapers. The corner where she sat to write for so long, the corner of the kitchen table she could not wait to escape, is now just an ordinary corner heaped high with papers, a precarious pile of glittered and decorated offerings.

The words flowed from that kitchen table. She can still hear the words bouncing around the room, words about the trials and tribulations of being a mother, the pains of parenting, the small gifts given to us in the form of first steps and new experiences. The words overflow and fill the room. But the new writer knows that those words were amateur, proffering little more than snippets of news she shared with family and friends afar, vignettes of vanity, her motherly pride sometimes getting the better of her. Those words were not the utterances of a real writer.

The silence is even lonelier downstairs in the rooms normally filled with the laughter and noise of children, so the new writer feels drawn to the sterility of the haven provided upstairs. Time seems to operate on a new dimension in the writer’s new room. Where once her fingers would fly across the keyboard and the words would form themselves on the screen before she had even seen them in her mind, now the words were stuck and she struggled to find them, hiding as they were in the recesses of her imagination. Where once she had to snatch five minutes of time to write, now the prospect of a day alone in her attic cell petrified her.

Many sacrifices were made so that the new writer could call herself that. Paid work was abandoned, and along with it the monetary and social rewards that came with it. The risk of starting again was not just on the shoulders of the one who was making the changes but on all the family. Being back at the starting line in middle age brought with it the very real risk of staying there.

And so the new writer returns to her writing room and once again assumes the position. She wonders whether the new technology is stifling her creativity and toys with the idea of nib and ink, or at least an old typewriter. She stares forward at the blank wall waiting for inspiration to come. Shadows dancing in the corner of her eye threaten to distract her. She must not be diverted, she is a new writer with a dream. Her new room is jeopardising her ability to concentrate and she has the very real concern that she will not succeed as a writer, and the world will soon discover that she is in fact a fraud.

The shadows in the corner of her eye call up a chorus, assaulting her concentration and rendering her incapable of writing. She turns to face her accusers, ready to admit that she is not a writer, that this was all a reverie. The wall in front of her is dotted with framed pages and she stands to examine them more closely. Her name springs from each of them, her name in print. These are her completed works, letters and stories, articles and competition pieces, all published, all framed. They are the only decoration to adorn the otherwise bare walls in her new writing room, the only ornamentation allowed in this hallowed space. They were a gift from her old self to her new dream, to inspire and encourage. They were never meant to deny her the opportunity to become all that she desired.

As she gazes upon her name, she finally sees what has always been clear: she has always been a writer. It is just the room that is new.

 

 

 

I Don’t Think I Am a Stalker

Have you ever had the experience where you read something, and think ‘Oh my God. That is EXACTLY what I was thinking. That person must know me. We must be, like, TWINS.’

I have that experience on a fairly regular basis when I read a column by Perth writer Ros Thomas, every Saturday morning in the West Australian.

Although she is a few years older than me, and her eldest child is a teenager and a boy, and she is actually qualified to call herself a writer (she was a journalist for more than two decades), I often feel that her words could be my very own, and the experiences she writes about, could be something that happened to me only days prior. It’s kinda spooky, but it gives me the (false) impression that I KNOW her, or (even more creepy), that she knows me. Which she doesn’t.

She smiled at me once though and looked in my direction. I went with a friend to one of her book launches, because my friend actually knows her, and was kind enough to introduce me. And then they went back to talking about stuff that I wasn’t involved in. But that was okay, because I was so excited to just see her in person. When you read someone’s words regularly, you begin to form ideas of what they look like and sound like, more than the tiny little photo in the corner of the magazine ever gives away.

When she began to talk to the assembled group about some of her favourite columns and how she came to be a writer, I did what I always do when people around me are being smart – I began to write down everything she said. Part of me (the overly optimistic and possibly delusional part) sometimes thinks that she is me in five or ten years time, and that her writing success could be mine if I continue down this road. She is a mum with three kids who is also a writer. So am I! She just happens to have a book deal. So I was eager to soak up everything she had to say.

At one stage I felt that she was describing me when she said that sometimes she jumps out of bed to write down a funny thought, that she is constantly writing notes, ideas and overheard conversations on bits of paper. I wanted to put my hand up and tell her I keep a white board in the shower in case I get a really good idea when I am washing my hair (but I didn’t).

So, fellow writers, here are some of the pearls that this fantastic – and very humble and real – writer had to say:

  • Don’t write about anything you haven’t experienced yourself. It will keep you authentic and on track.
  • Writing is a discipline. Force yourself to sit at your desk even if you are not inspired, eventually something will come.
  • Do a lot of research. Even for a simple story, there are more facts or background that can help improve a story and make it even richer.
  • Be forensic in your observations. Go back to a place where a thought or story came into your head. Take pictures. Look at the colours, the smell, the texture. Make it authentic. If you are secure in your mental imagery, it will make you a better writer.
  • Remember the musicality and rhythm of language. Your writing must be able to be read effortlessly.
  • The hardest thing to get right is dialogue. If you are writing about a conversation you had, get it on paper as soon as possible.

At the end of the session we had the opportunity to buy a copy of her book and have it signed. I desperately wanted to ask her an intelligent question, but I could only babble my name. I wanted to tell her how she told my stories, and asked my questions and (occasionally) lived my life. But as I listened to other people in the queue, I realised that they all felt the same way. They felt an attachment to this woman as well, whether they were young or old or male or female. Mostly female though.

It was a timely reminder of the value of being common, and I certainly don’t mean that in a derogatory way. By common, I mean recognisable, universal and familiar. It is our shared experiences which bring us together, whether we are reading a column in a newspaper or a blog on the internet. Being told I am common is the comment I value the most by my own readers – ‘you have written exactly what I have been thinking’ or ‘I am so glad I am not the only one who does that.’

Ros Thomas put into words a common experience. She just does it very beautifully, and effortlessly. I wasn’t able to tell her any of this, but I’m sure she already knows.

When I got home and looked at the book she had signed, I saw she had written ‘it was lovely to meet you’, and I thought to myself: thanks to the power of words, we already know each other.

 

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Writers versus Bloggers

I recently attended a blogging conference in Sydney, during which I learned many things, mostly that I seem to be breaking a lot of the unbreakable rules of blogging*.

But over the three days, as I spoke with different people, with a range of blogs and diverse stories, the main thing that crystallised was that there seemed to be two distinct groups.

The distinction was not one I had put on them. It seemed to be self-assigned, with no discomfiture nor judgement. And I’m not saying that people could not fit into both categories, it’s just that people seemed to want to choose to be one or the other.

People were either bloggers or writers.

People who referred to themselves as bloggers often said they were not writers, although they obviously possessed the necessary skills to run a blog. Bloggers tended to be more professional, had bigger numbers of followers, were more likely to monetise their blogs and make money from sponsored posts, advertising or selling products.

Their blogs were pretty phenomenal. Bloggers seem to treat their blogs as a virtual workplace. They’re organised. They utilise multiple social media platforms. They schedule posts. They know cool stuff about blogs and how they work.

Then there were the writers. All the writers I met had blogs obviously, because this was a blogging conference. But the writers also did other writerly things, in addition to their blogs: they wrote children’s stories, or eBooks, or feature articles, or poems. They published on multiple platforms, including good old fashioned print. Their blogs were merely one of many mediums to get their words out to the wider world.

Writers seemed eager to make sure they said they were writers.

I am a writer. It’s on my business card, so I must be. In fact, in every single bio that I have ever sent out attached to a blog post, review, article or story pitch, I always write ‘Shannon Meyerkort is a writer…’. Sometimes I am also a blogger and sometimes an author, but I always say I am a writer.

Until I heard others do it too, I hadn’t really realised I was doing it.

Are the two mutually exclusive? Or are bloggers a subset of writers? Are writers (me included) claiming to be better than bloggers because we seek to share our words on more platforms, or does that just make us greedy and unfocussed? Are bloggers suggesting that by not being a writer they are more resolute and professional?

I’m not suggesting that bloggers don’t have superb writing skills, nor am I suggesting that writers lack professionalism, but there must be a line in the sand that writers and bloggers draw, and then choose a side. Go and visit your favourite blogs now: look at the ‘about me’ page and the tagline: are they calling themselves a writer or a blogger?

What side are you on? And why?

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*But that’s okay, because I’m a writer, not a blogger, right?

How to Unblock Bloggers Block

Feast or famine.

Flood or drought.

Inspiration or desperation.

Do these sound familiar to you? As writers, do you find that it’s all or nothing when it comes to your writing?

People who have been reading my other blog Relentless over the years can see that I tend to write in spurts, and can either publish a number of posts in a relatively short period of time, or my blog comes to resemble the literary equivalent of an abandoned Old West town, with spinifex rolling across the screen.

I recently attended some workshops at the Perth Writer’s Festival and found just being in a room of writers was enough to get my writing mojo back. I have been thinking about what inspires me as a blogger so here are my top tips for unblocking bloggers block. If you’re a novelist, click here for my top tips for unblocking writers block.

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During times of feast, prepare for the famine

When things are going well and the ideas are coming thick and fast, write them down. Keep a single book with all your writing ideas, even if you write in different genres. When times are good you probably won’t have enough hours in the day to act on everything, so leave them (with sufficient details and notes) so that when you are blocked you can go back and look at previous ideas.

What worked before, might work again

Look through your stats and see what has been popular in the past. What have been your five most read posts? Try and figure out what was special about those pieces – what made them resonate with readers? Was it the content or the format? Was it funny or thought-provoking, controversial or sad. Find what your readers respond to and write more like that.

Sometimes the answers for future posts can be found in your readers’ comments. See what people have responded to, and find out if they have asked any questions about you or your post.

Similarly, why not write a follow-up post about one of your popular articles or a Part II, like this follow-up to The Brutal Truth About the Third Child which ended up winning a writing competition at Parent Express.

Change it up

If you have an idea for a post but for whatever reason it’s not working try changing perspective. Perhaps you always write from the first person, but this time it’s not flowing. Pretend to be your child, your dog or a stranger writing about the same thing.

If you can’t change perspective then play with the format – rather than a straight story from your own point of view, write a letter or make a list. ‘Top 10 reasons why…’ posts tend to be popular as well as any list article that claims to be the ‘best of’.

There is a degree is universalism in these types of posts, the title gives the impression that they are relevant to a wider community, and isn’t simply a story about you.  What would you rather read: ‘My horrible day at the shopping centre’ or ‘Ten reasons why taking your toddler to the shops is bound to end in tears?’

Figure out what brings readers to your blog

Most blogging platforms offer easy stats programs which will tell you what search terms people have used before ending up on your blog. For Relentless at the moment they tend to be terms like: ‘advice on having baby number 3’, ‘planning for baby number 3’, ‘should I have a third child’ and my favourite ‘how should I tell my husband we’re having baby number 3’ (while offering him a stiff drink, dear).

While it is interesting to find out what random terms brought people to your blog by mistake, it is also a great tool to see what your readership are actively searching for. Why not offer them what they are looking for.

Based on the search terms people use before they come across Relentless I could easily write a series of posts dedicated to specific questions about having three kids: “How to tell your husband you want three kids”, “What happens when you want three kids and he doesn’t” or “How to prepare for the third child”.

All really good ideas I don’t have time for right now, so I will write them in my ideas book (see point 1).

Be a thief in the night

There is no copyright on ideas, I was told once during a writing workshop. While I wouldn’t advocate merely pinching someone’s idea carte blanche (that’s boring), I certainly think that finding inspiration in other writers’ posts is fair game.

When you read something that makes you feel happy/sad/angry/motivated ask yourself WHY did this evoke such a reaction? Now figure out how you can take that reaction and write your own post. Have they left any part of this story untold? Is there another side of the story? Could you tell your own version?

Sometimes it might be the title of the post that strikes a chord: write it in your book, give it some times to marinate and then begin your own post. It might (and should) be an entirely different article than the one from which you got your inspiration, but now at least you’re over your bloggers block.

What other ideas do you have for overcoming bloggers block?