What I learned in 2013: The one about writing

This January, I am looking at what I learned last year, so I can do better this year.  The first post was about Christmas, but now the festive season is well and truly over.  Epiphany (the feast of) has come and gone, the Christmas decorations have been put away (with the exception of the one that got missed, which will now sit on the windowsill until Michaelmas*) and it’s time to think seriously about what 2013 has taught me about writing and what that means for 2014.

*I don’t know when that is either. But it’s a long time from Christmas and it sounds good!

First, partly because it’s the most recent lesson, and because it encompasses some other things I’ve learned about me and writing this year, I have learned that…

…NaNoWriMo is not for me (don’t all faint at once).

For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month.  It’s a joint effort where people around the world commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in November.  People do it as a way to encourage them to write.  The idea is to give yourself a challenging word count every day for a limited time as a spur to persist, push through and get down some words.

It sounds like a good idea and for several years now, I’ve given it a go.  In none of them, have I got anywhere near writing 50,000 words.  More to the point, I think I would have written more in November if I hadn’t attempted it.  And here’s why:

  • Arbitrary goals set by someone else (or even set by myself) with a ‘win’ or ‘lose’ status attached to them get my back up.  There are a few reasons for this.  One is that I think I’m naturally ornery.  I don’t like being told what to do.  Even when it’s good for me.  Maybe especially when it’s good for me.  But it also stems from my long and disastrous relationship with weight-loss dieting.  I have learned the hard way that diets don’t work.  They set you up by making you obsessed with food, then telling you not to eat.  They divorce you from your natural relationship with hunger, by dictating what, and sometimes when, you will eat, with no reference to individuality or circumstances.  They make you crazy.  (There is a much bigger post – indeed, thesis – in this, but I’m restraining myself because that’s not what THIS one is about.)
    And I worked out this year that NaNoWriMo feels like a ‘diet’ to me.  An arbitrary set of rules, that may or may not mean anything useful, that you ‘win’ if you follow and ‘lose’ if you don’t.  This makes me cross.  It Continue reading

Haligo Daligo Woods and other Miscommunications

My girl is at a school that is very big on music.  Seriously, at least twice a year they have Official Events at which they play ALL THE THINGS, then a couple of times more they have small events at which they play even more things.  At last count she was in five different musical groups and attending the rehearsals of a sixth, which her best friend is in.

It is the latter group that is currently rehearsing a rather funky arrangement of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  For those of you not around in the 70s, it goes like this:

In the chorus of this song, Elton sings that he is giving up the so-called high life (characterised as ‘The Yellow Brick Road) and is going back to his plough.  Then he says that he is going back to something in the woods and will be hunting something something toad.

Since 1973, I have been singing along to this song and have never got closer to knowing what these words were than that.   True, I inserted a completely spurious cabin into the woods, because it seemed a likely thing to be going back to, but I guess I always knew it wasn’t right.  It doesn’t scan.  To fit with the music, it would have to be a cabin-o (which is, indeed, frequently what I sang) and even Elton, in his most outre glasses days, would not have inflicted a cabin-o on an unsuspecting public.  I also doubted that even the most disenchanted would leave the high-life for the dubious pleasures of hunting toads.  But I chose not to go into that too closely.  I was young, in the 70s, and there was a limit to what I wanted to know about alternative lifestyles.

My daughter, who clearly listened more closely than I did (or who, perhaps, scorned a cabin-o) sang that he was going back to the Haligo Daligo woods.  She, too, felt this was unlikely to be correct, but there are many woods in the backblocks of the USA and who is to say that his plough was not domiciled in the Haligo Daligo woods?  It did, at least, scan.

It turns out that the actual lyric is ‘back to the HOWLING OLD OWL, in the woods, hunting THE HORNY-BACKED toad.’

A Horned Owl, which may or may not be about to howl...

A Horned Owl, which may or may not be about to howl…

Get out.

I take it back about what Elton was willing to inflict on an unsuspecting public.  If ever a line was written to fit a gap in a song (and to rhyme with road) this is it.  Do owls even howl?  I mean, I know they can make many noises, but I’m not sure howling is among them (cue a deluge of info from owl-fanciers about their cries).  Although, to be fair, it is all real words (no cabin-o) and it does, indisputably, scan.

But it made me wonder just how many things are misunderstood, not just in songs, but in stories, and what effect it might have on the reader.

I, for example, dearly love a ‘saying’.  I enjoy colloquialisms and I use them fairly freely in my writing.  I sometimes run afoul of editors as a result.  In the novel that I had published last year, I took one out, because my editor didn’t understand it, only to see exactly the same expression used in a novel I read just a few weeks later.

I am all for writing clearly, but I think colloquial language injects colour and potential amusement – within reason of course, one doesn’t want to drown in dialect – and should be left in.  But I suppose it does raise the potential for ‘Haligo Daligo Woods’-style misunderstandings.  I generally think unfamiliar words and word usage can be worked out from context, but I wonder, though, even if it does lead to misunderstandings, whether it matters?

So I guess my question is, do you think you should leave out the quirky speech in favour of clarity, or leave it in and let the misunderstandings fall where they may?  Or should you, as one historical writer I know does, include a glossary at the back?



Horned Owl photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

SYWTBAW: Getting your work out there

Flying into the unknownA couple of weeks ago I started a new series on the blog called ‘So you want to be a writer?’  It seems I have plenty of things to say on this topic, as I have roughly fifty scraps of paper lying around the house with ideas for posts scribbled on them, but so far they haven’t made it to the blog. (Writer reality number 15: there are more ideas than there are hours to realise them.)

But today I thought I’d liberate one of them from its scrappy home and it’s this:

Writers put it out there.

Their work, that is!

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So you want to be a writer…

I have many ideas for posts in this series.  I’m actually brimming over with notions and really looking forward to nailing them down in the hope they will help.

But today, I have to finish clearing out a second-hand store’s worth of STUFF out of my house to make room for my husband’s new billiard table.  He never wants anything but this is something he has wanted for ages and I am going to make it happen, if I have to drag the stuff to Vinnies on a wagon!

Also, today I am also on blog duty over at Romance Writers of the Apocalypse (where I’m talking about choosing a word for the year).

So today I am just going to share one idea and a little story to get started.

The idea is this:

Writers write.

I know.  You’ve heard it before.  But it’s true.  The key thing that separates writers from non-writers is that writers write.  I will talk more about how, when, how often and the like at a later time, but I think the key thing here is persistence.

Which brings me to the story.  As regular readers know, I had my first novel published this year.

What you may not know is that I didn’t write it this year.  I didn’t write it last year either.

The novel that finally became Rules are for Breaking was written some years ago.  I submitted it at the time; it was rejected.  At the time, the market for that kind of romance was fairly limited, so rather than try to submit it elsewhere, I put it aside and moved on.  Then I ran into some major personal dramas that put writing on hold for the best part of two years.  I didn’t get much new work done.  But I came back (see the persistence theme beginning).  Having tasted the joy of finished stories (even rejected ones) I needed more.

So I started writing a different book (my girly thriller) and, in due course, I submitted the first three chapters of it to a competition run by the Romance Writers of Australia.

I didn’t win. (Did you really think the big finish was this quick?  Have you never seen any movies?)

I came second.  (Rejoicing!)

The editor who judged didn’t request my manuscript.  (Misery!)

But she gave my details to another editor at Penguin, who was starting up a new digital romance imprint, called Destiny Romance.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

(Actually, there is more to this story, but that, including the completely wrong way to handle a phone conversation with a potential publisher, is for another time!)

The point here is the one that my husband made at the time.  I said that this opportunity had come out of the blue.  He said no, it hadn’t.  He said it had come because I had kept working.  Yes, it was for work that I did earlier, but it was the work that I was doing now that got it noticed.  It was, in his words, all part of the body of work.

Or in other words, it happened because I kept writing.

So, here’s my first piece of advice, if you want to be a writer:


Because if you do, you too will have the chance to communicate some of the way you see the world with other people.  And some of them will ‘get it’.  And that is the true joy – and I couldn’t mean that more sincerely – of things like this: 2012 ARRA finalist

So, here’s today’s question for those who want to be writers: Watcha workin’ on?

NaNo’s history – so what’s next?

As you know, this year I participated (unofficially) in National Novel Writing Month (known to its friends as NaNoWriMo.

The stated aim is to write 50,000 words in the month of November.  But I’ll be honest with you.  I never expected to write 50,000 words.

If I had been writing a new work, I might have managed that, or something close, but I wasn’t.  I am close to the end of my big work in progress (WIP) and I had stalled somewhat, as I faced the brutal reality of pulling together a tense plot which is much more complicated than anything I’ve written before.

This is supposed to represent me being all gritty and determine to write - but really it's just an excuse to fangirl over The Hobbit!

This is supposed to represent me being all gritty and determined to write – but really it’s just an excuse to fangirl over The Hobbit!

For me, NaNo was about overcoming The Fear (yes, always capitalised, as that is how it looms in my head and heart) of failure – and using a deadline, or word count target to push through it.

So, the good news is that it worked.  I got through the part that was stalling me, am out the other side and am on the downhill run.

The even BETTER news is that I have learned something really important about how I work and how to set word count goals that are challenging but manageable.

I have previously struggled with word count goals, as the way I work means that I can seldom achieve the giddy numbers that many people do.  Sure, there are days, when the story is flowing, that I can get down several thousand goodish words which I can edit later without too much trouble into something worth reading.  But these days I tend to plan a bit more in advance, so I know more about what I’m trying to do in a scene, which means I choose my words more carefully and consequently it takes longer.  I might write many thousands of words during a session, but I end it with a much smaller number of edited words and those are the only ones I count.  Since they’re the only ones that contribute to the book’s total, that seems sensible, to me.

And naturally, the more complicated the plot and the point in the plot, the trickier the scene is to write and the more slowly I get to those magic ‘finished’ words.

However, what this hot-house period of NaNo has taught me is that, even on the worst days, writing from scratch (which no previous words to edit) and in the trickiest of scenes, I can create 1,000 finished words.

In previous times, when in the grip of production panic and comparing myself to other people (never a good idea; comparisons really are stinky) I would have flapped around saying ‘it’s not enough!’  Must do more!

But that was stupid.  This is the same thinking that led me, when editing a magazine, to decide what needed to be done on each day, without any reference to what was possible, then, when it didn’t happen, just add today’s list to tomorrow’s list.  Trust me, that way madness and sickness lie.  I succumbed to both.

And it isn’t even necessary.  If I can turn out 1,000 ‘finished’ words a day, working five days a week, I will have 100,000 words in 20 weeks – or six months, allowing for holidays and the unexpected.  That’s a whole novel.  And that is a speed I can live with.

So this is my new goal: a minimum of 1,000 good words a day.

I know this is a good goal, as it makes me feel energised and inspired, rather than overwhelmed and panicky.  I also know it’s good because I have been doing it since the 1st of December and it is working!  On the hardest day, I managed 1200 good words from scratch.  On another day, I wrote 895 edited words, and 1,000 of a rough draft of the next scene, which the following day turned into 2,500 edited words – giving me roughly 3,395 (or a chapter, basically) over the two days.  Which shows the other benefit of a good goal – because I’m not afraid of this goal, I just sit down and do it and as a result, I’m building up momentum again, something I thought I’d lost on this story!

So, although I got nowhere near the official word count, I am very happy with the results of my unofficial NaNo.  My friend Alison Stuart also found it an inspiring learning experience, even though she didn’t make the numbers either.  (You can read about what she learnt here.)

How did you go?  Did you try? Did you succeed?  What has it taught you that you can use into the future?

Gettin’ my NaNoWriMo on – or how word count can fight fear

I am assuming that everyone knows what NaNoWriMo is, but just in case you don’t, it’s a writing community challenge, in which people sign up to write fifty thousand words during November.  The idea is that you can get a novel – or a draft of one, or the bones of one, anyway – written in a month.

A lot of people love it and some have gone on to produce published, even award-winning novels from it.  But until now, I have avoided it.

This is partly because November is often a busy month for me and partly because I have never liked word count as a measure of progress.  Contrary to a lot of writing advice, I edit as I go, which means that when it comes to comparing numbers of words written in a day, I can’t keep up with people who like to write a ‘dirty draft’ then fix it up later.

But… while I’m cool with how I write, lately I’ve been finding that I just haven’t been getting enough done.

Now, I could put this down to a number of things.  I have been busy lately and this November is not going to be any less busy than usual.  It would be easy to cut myself slack and say it’s just life.

But I think there’s more to it than that.  I think I have been succumbing to The Fear. This fear has always been with me when it comes to writing.  It’s the fear that I won’t be good enough.  That I won’t be able to do justice to the ideas in my head and that I’ll let down my characters and my readers.

You’d think, now that I’ve had a book published, that the fear would lessen.  But in fact I think it’s got worse.  It’s not conscious – it certainly isn’t rational – but lately I’ve noticed that my productivity has gone to hell and I think this might be the cause.

So, I’ve decided that a concerted push at just getting the words down might be just Continue reading

On Life as a Work in Progress

For what is I think the third week in a row (no, not looking it up, it will only depress me and waste time I don’t have) I am getting my Monday on Writing post up on Tuesday.


You know, all my life, I have been looking for the perfect system, the perfect plan.  I love a plan, me.  I love making a list and feeling like I know what is going on.  (Which, incidentally makes it a little weird that I started writing as a full-on pantser, but that’s a topic for another time.)

The problem is that my life resolutely refuses to co-operate with my careful plans.  On the day I plan to get five thousand words done on my WIP, my child comes down with some foul lurgy and I have to run around to the doctor and suchlike.  On the day I plan to start my brand new, healthy life plan, I wake up really not in the mood for the bircher muesli I so carefully soaked the night before.

So I have decided – not for the first time, it seems to be a lesson I need to learn over and over – Continue reading

Wednesday WIP: Unexpected writerly inspiration and ideas from my friends

So, on Monday, I took up a writing challenge and put out an open invitation to others to join in.

(BTW, that invitation is still well and truly open so if you haven’t had a chance to throw your bit into the ring yet, please do! Click the blue ‘Monday’ above.)

I was delighted to see how many people responded and how good their snippets of work were.  If you haven’t seen them yet, do have a look and if you feel inclined, I’m sure the contributors would love your feedback.

I was expecting to enjoy reading the work.  What was an unexpected pleasure was finding two little gems of ‘advice’ that I can use immediately in my current manuscript.

The first was this one, from Bella

One thing that always works for me is to have an “out of body” experience. That’s when I have a look at what’s currently taking place as if I were a spectator of the tragedy or comedy unfolding before me. No longer am I the protagonist, but instead, a bystander who is able to observe so she can later recount what she has witnessed.

She was talking about finding inspiration for a blog post, but it burst upon me as a way to overcome the slight block I’ve been experiencing in my story.  I need to get some of my characters through a list of tasks and wasn’t sure how to approach it.  But this has made me realise that perhaps I’m overthinking it.  I’m well into this story.  These characters are well fleshed-out now, with personalities and ideas of their own.  Maybe what I need to do is just give them the task list, perch like the proverbial fly on the wall and watch what they do.

If you’re not a writer, that may sound extremely odd, but if you are, you might like to try it too.  I know it’s made me excited about writing these scenes I’ve been avoiding, and I’m all for anything that can do that!

The other little nugget of wonderful was from Jett, who said this:

As a rule, I want each character to be interesting enough – even if they only have a couple lines – that if I had to I could write a story on them.

This is an excellent reminder.  I once read somewhere – I think it was in Stephen King’s, On Writing, that every character in a scene thinks they’re the protagonist and as writers, we need to remember that.  If a character doesn’t bring wants and needs to a scene, he or she shouldn’t be in it – or the story.  Since my ‘list of tasks’ involves several minor characters and a hovering bad guy (who thinks he’s a good guy) this is a timely reminder for me.  So thanks, Jett!

Incidentally, Jett has recently set up a Kickstarter for what sounds like a fascinating project dealing with unknown women’s history.  He was too polite to mention it in his comment, but this is a subject close to my heart, so I’m doing it now! Check it out his post about it here.

So I’m off to get some scenes done in the story, refreshed by an unexpected source.  What about you? Have you had any serendipitous moments of clarity?

Look! It’s a writer challenge – so show me what you’ve got!

Last Monday, I was talking about following your creative dream and taking encouragement from the great works that can come from following your creative muse. (Which is the connection to the picture of a rose. ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, true; but it took Shakespeare to tell us so.)

This week, I want to see evidence.

The lovely Gabrielle, of Gabbawrites has tagged me to participate in the ‘look’ challenge.  I’m going to participate (you know me, I’ll go to the opening of an enevelope) and my contribution is below (along with the challenge ‘rules’).

But I’ve done this one before, so this time, as well as putting in my two cents’ worth, I’d like to mix it up a bit and offer you, gentle readers, a challenge.

I want you to show me what you’ve got.

Writing-wise, that is. This is a family show.  😉

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Writers, follow your own star and dream big

‘Dream no little dreams, for they contain no magic’.

I don’t know who said this first.  (I read it on the side of a memento coffee mug from a RWA conference and it was provided by Vicki Lewis Thompson.)

I just know that it is a phrase that is speaking to me at the moment on the subject of writing.

It came to mind yesterday when I saw the girl, who is on school holidays, spend a good couple of hours creating a personal translation key for the runes in The Hobbit.  I’m pretty sure this would have pleased its author.

When J.R.R. Tolkien sat down to write the Hobbit he could not have had any idea that they book would be as popular and enduring as it turned out to be. If what I read is true, he never intended to be a novelist.  He only wrote the stories to introduce people to the mythology he was creating.

Yes, that’s right, J.R.R. didn’t set out to write a book.  He set out to create a whole mythology for a country (England) that he felt lacked a proper one.

What a completely mental thing to try to do.

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