Tag Archives: craft

How (Not) To Write A Story in 8 Days

About a year ago, I made a decision to focus on writing novels (my real writing love) and the occasional piece of flash fiction for my blog when the Muse overtook me. The one exception is the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge.

This writing competition works in a particularly unusual (and thus exciting) way. You see… No, I’ll let them explain.

There are 3 rounds of competition.  In the 1st Round (February 7-15, 2014), writers are placed randomly in heats and are assigned a genre, subject, and character assignment.  Writers have 8 days to write an original story no longer than 2,500 words.  The judges choose a top 5 in each heat to advance to the 2nd Round (March 27-30, 2014) where writers receive new assignments, only this time they have just 3 days to write a 2,000 word (maximum) short story.  Judges choose finalists from the 2nd Round to advance to the 3rd and final round of the competition where writers are challenged to write a 1,500 word(maximum) story in just 24 hours (May 2-3, 2014).

I had a great time with the challenge last year (although I didn’t make it past the first round), and participated again this year. So for those of you who are curious about what my writing process looks like, I thought I’d share my experience of writing a 2500 story in 8 days.

Note: I do not suggest, recommend, or in any way endorse the following as a sane or reasonable method of artistic creation.

Day 1:

The genre/subject/character assignments were released on Friday night at midnight EST. Which means that over here in FutureLand I got the email at 3:00 Saturday afternoon. My assignment looked something like this:

Genre: Fantasy
Subject: A Funeral
Character: A Gambler

I emailed, messaged, texted, and otherwise contacted everyone who knew I was taking part in the challenge, and then… Well, then I went about my normal life. Time to let my subconscious spend some time working on the story details.

Day 2:

What interesting thing could happen at a funeral? Thinking… Thinking… Thinking… A heist!

Someone has to steal something from inside the coffin at a funeral!

My mind went into overdrive. A heist! I love heists! But what would be so important, so crucial that someone — a gambler, in fact — would go to great (and non-violent) lengths to steal from inside a coffin at a funeral?

And the answer was obvious.

Luck.

I would write about a gambler stealing the Luck of a Gambler from inside his coffin in the middle of his funeral.

Well. After all that thinking, I was exhausted. So I went and spent a day with a friend, watched The Newsroom, drank wine, and snacked on cheese and chocolate and other extravagances.

Day 3:

After a busy Monday, I sat down to start writing and… nothing. I got nothing. So I did some brainstorming, ate some more chocolate, and wished I wasn’t quite so tired.

Day 4:

By this evening, I knew I really had to pull out all stops and get the story written if I was going to have any chance of actually submitting it on time. It was due back by 3:00pm Sunday (Technically day 9 or an 8 day challenge… Gotta love time zones.) and I hadn’t even started yet.

Plus, when I ran into my writer-friend this morning, she was all jazzed because she’d already finished the draft of her entry.

So I sat down to write and…. I managed 300 words. And realised I was setting the story in a Wild West-inspired fantasy world. Time to do some research.

Day 5:

A crazy-busy day was topped off by the receipt of emails delivering bad news. I couldn’t even get my head into my life, let alone my story.

Day 6:

Thursday. The deadline was fast approaching, and I had a grand total of 300 words written. But I was still thinking — still letting my subconscious do its thing — so I wasn’t worried. The shape of the story was starting to reveal itself to me, and the character (who still didn’t have a name) was telling me her life story.

Day 7:

I wrote another 400 words, bringing my grand total up to 700. And in those 400 words, a whole new theme presented itself. I threw out all the plans I’d made for the ending, and turned the protagonist into someone a little less despicable, and a lot more likeable. And then I went to sleep.

Day 8:

Despite all the promises I’d made to myself that I wasn’t going to leave it until the night before the story was due to start writing it, here I was. The night before the story was due. With only 700 words written out of approximately 2500, and no energy to write. So I drank two cups of coffee, sat down on my bed, and…. fell asleep.

Day 9:

I woke up in the middle of the night and set my alarm for 4am, so I’d have a couple of hours of writing time before the boys woke up. And then I slept through my alarm and woke up at 7:00.

I’m not going to lie. Expletives may have been used.

I had six hours to write, edit, and submit a 2500 word story. And all I had was 700 words and an idea of the shape of the story.

I considered whether it was time to panic yet, and voted ‘no’. But I did get down to work. By 11:00am, I was 2000 words into the story, and had just got to the funeral scene. Plus, I had to pack up to take my son to dance class.

I decided that now was a good time to panic.

So I fretted while I got the boys ready to go out, and I worried while I drove 45 minutes to the dance studio, and I stressed while I kissed him goodbye. And then I jumped back in the car, and zoomed off to a nearby park so I could keep writing.

At 1:45pm, I finished the first draft. It had 3515 words. So, that’s 1000 words more than the maximum length.

I kept panicking.

Not least because it was time to pack up and drive back to the dance studio to pick up the boy. Which is what I did. Because, writing challenge or no writing challenge, being a Mum doesn’t stop.

When I arrived at the dance studio, a friend (whose daughter also dances) met me with the question: “Did you finish?”

“No,” I said. “I still have to–”

She interrupted. “How about I take your boys to my place so you can get it finished and submitted? You can catch us up.”

Best.

Friend.

Ever.

So that’s how I found myself sitting in a cafe at 2:15pm, with 45 minutes to cut 1000 words  from my story, read the formatting instructions, and get it submitted.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard the phrase “kill your darlings”. It’s the suggestion that any piece of prose you’re too precious about should be removed. Well, in this case, I can assure you that over the next 35 minutes, I not only killed my darlings, I killed their darlings, as well as their flatmates and their pets.

I cut 1000 words from my story — most of them from the first 2000 — and made it shorter and sharper and, most importantly, valid for the competition.

I had just less than 10 minutes to get it formatted and submitted.

And that’s when my internet stopped working.

Gotcha. Not really.

No, what really happened was that I was so freaked out that I only had … checking clock … eight minutes left, that I kept clicking the wrong links, and couldn’t find the page that detailed the required font or size or format or… well, anything.

I found it, adjusted my file, and realised two things. (1) I had three minutes left until the cut-off, and (2) I needed to include a two-sentence synopsis.

Two-sentence synopsis coming right up. Boom! No time to think about how good it is. Barely time to type the words. And then…

And then a helpful waitress appeared at my table and said, “Is your coffee okay?”

“Yeah. Thanks,” I managed. And that was no easy feat, because I was trying to find the darn submit button, and had less than two minutes left.

“Oh, good,” she says. “And would you like some water?”

“No,” I snapped. And then felt immediately guilty that I wasn’t being nice to her when she’d done nothing wrong except approach me when I only had…

One minute!

I hit the submit button. My story whirred away into neverwhere.

And then I realised I’d sent the wrong file. I sent the .docx instead of the .doc.

So I sent it again. I’m 99% sure the second time was past the cut-off. And then I waited… And waited…. Worried that I’d missed out… Worried that I’d submitted too late…

Yesterday, I got an email from them.

Dear Jo Eberhardt,

This e-mail is to let you know that we have received your Short Story Challenge 2014 1st Round submission titled“Luck of the Gambler”.  You will be judged in Heat31 – Fantasy / A funeral / A gambler.  Judging will now take place and we will announce the results by 11:59PM EDT on Monday, March 24th, 2014 via e-mail and through our facebook and twitter pages.

And that, my friends, is how to write a story in 8 days.

Well, assuming you like heart palpitations, adrenaline rushes, and living life on the edge, anyway.

Do you leave your writing to the last minute, or get it done well in advance?

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The Last Day of School

Today was Big Brother’s last day of school for the year. Amazingly, it’s summer holidays. And I find myself asking: How did this happen? Where did the year go?

First and Last Day of School 2012

Big Brother on the first and last day of school.

It’s hard to believe my boy will be at school full-time next year. Already. It feels like only yesterday I was dropping him off for his first day, wondering whether he was going to be happy or sad, wondering whether he’d cry and latch on to me or if he’d walk away without a backward glance. And here we are at the end of the year, with him chattering on excitedly about everything he’s going to do next year and how much he’s going to look after the little kids.

In many ways, he’s still the same little boy he was at the start of the year. I feel like he hasn’t changed at all.

But he has.

He’s more confident. He’s more imaginative. He’s more inclined to do craft and tell stories and sing songs. He’s more eager to help around the house, and to ask if he can do jobs for me.

He’s more grown up.

At the end of year Festival this morning, we were given a bundle of his drawings, paintings, and craft work that he did throughout the year. (The teachers hold on to it rather than sending it home piecemeal.) We sat down as a family and looked through his pictures, starting with the ones he did in February and working through to the more complicated pictures done over the last couple of months. The progression is striking.

And then there’s the knitted turtle he made — he did the finger-knitting and his teacher attached it to the turtle shaped body. And the beautiful sewing project — he did all the stitching on a lovely little heart-shaped pillow. He’s so very, very proud of them. And I’m so very, very proud of him.

121206 - Tristan's Artwork

Do you get all gushy at the end of a school year, or is it just me?

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Tidying With Intent

Look at that innocent face. He could do no wrong, right?

Uh. Wrong.

Little Brother is 21 months old, and is the master of coming up with ways to annoy his big brother. I’m pretty sure this is a skill that comes naturally to younger siblings. (My husband and I are both the eldest in our families, and we have plenty of stories about our siblings driving us crazy.) But the interesting thing about Little Brother’s methods are that they involve him finding ways to really, really, really annoy his brother while at the same time doing nothing wrong.

To this end, Little Brother spends a lot of time listening to what I say. Then he takes what I’ve said and turns it to his own ends.

“Let’s put out a blanket and sit on it to eat our lunch,” I said one day. Indoor picnic. Yay!

A few hours later, Big Brother was playing happily by himself, building a world out of figurines and blocks and coloured cloths (blue for water, green for grass, yellow for sand, etc, etc). Along came Little Brother. He watched for a couple of minutes. Then he stomped his way into the middle of the landscape, kicked the buildings and people out of the way and sat down.

Amid Big Brother’s screams of rage and grief, Little Brother held out his hands and looked at me innocently. “Lunch?”

Sometimes it’s hard not to just laugh.

I always encourage Little Brother to tidy up after himself. I work with him to put away his toys, encourage him to put dirty clothes in the washing basket, and other little jobs around the house. He thinks it’s a lot of fun — so much so that he’s taken to waiting impatiently for people to finish eating so he can put their crockery on the bench for them. We talk about tidying up a lot. But I have to admit, I didn’t think this was a skill he would use against his brother.

The boys were playing together nicely yesterday. Big Brother was using his craft things to build some kind of invention, and Little Brother was alternately watching in amazement and half-heartedly stacking blocks. They giggled together from time to time. All was well in the world.

I took the opportunity to disappear into my office and check my email for a few minutes. And that was my first mistake.

“Noooooo!” Big Brother screamed. “Little Brother! No! No! Bad Baby! No!”

Incoherent screeching followed as Big Brother got more and more upset.

I went to investigate. “What’s going on?”

Big Brother was dodging back and forth, trying to prevent Little Brother escaping from the playroom with his prize. “I need it!” Big Brother yelled. “Give it back! I was using it and I need it! Muuuuuuuuummy! I was using the sticky tape and Little Brother snatched it from me and he won’t give it back and now my invention is ruined!”

Sure enough, Little Brother was clutching the sticky tape to his chest as he tried to run around Big Brother’s outstretched arms.

He saw me watching and, using my appearance as a suitable distraction, ducked under his brother’s arm, and ran to the set of drawers that house the craft goods. With a satisfied smile, Little Brother deposited the sticky tape away in its rightful place and closed the drawer. Then he looked at me proudly and clapped his hands. Look! he seemed to be saying. I tidied up the sticky tape before you even asked me to! Aren’t I a good boy?

And with Big Brother’s mournful wails still echoing in my ears, I left the room.

Because getting the giggles in front of a devastated five year old has got to be bad parenting karma.

 

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On Writing and Developing Characters

It’s taken me a little while to write this post today. Yesterday’s post was much more intense and (potentially) controversial than usual, and I wasn’t sure how to follow it up. I don’t want to keep talking politics (I’ve said my piece) but I didn’t feel right going into a funny anecdote about my children, either.

So I’ve decided to find some middle ground and talk about writing. Specifically, about the process I’m going through at the moment: Developing my characters.

I talked a bit about my need to revisit my character development a couple of weeks ago, and then touched on some reasons I think it’s important to create fully developed characters at some point during the writing process, whether it’s before you start writing, in the middle of a project (like I’m doing now) or after you’ve finished your first draft. And that’s what I’ve been working on over the last week and a half.

One of the ways to get to know your characters a bit better is to do a ‘Character Interview’. This is where you sit your character down and ask them a whole range of questions — you know, like you do on a first date.

(Disclaimer: It’s a long time since I’ve been on a first date.)

For the non-writer’s in the audience, yes this sounds crazy. Yes, the characters aren’t really real. But trust me, it works.

I’ve had some success with character interviews in the past, but had lost the interview template I used. So I asked around, and was pointed to this awesome character questionnaire. I read it and was hooked.

The quiz has 50 questions in total, although some are really follow-on questions rather than stand-alone ones. I’ve been enjoying putting my characters through their paces on this one, and my husband and I have also used it to get to know some of our RPG characters better.

Click through. Read it. Try it. Let me know what you think.

And in the spirit of fun, I thought I’d share a few of the answers so far. These are answers from a mix of different characters in the urban fantasy novel I’m working on (four different characters are represented here). Hopefully you’ll find some of the answers as amusing and/or interesting as I do.

  1. If you could change anything about yourself…
    • It would be my tusks. They’re… look, it’s not that they’re small. But it never hurts to have bigger ones, right?
  2. What’s your favourite food?
    • My father used to cook me a meal called grautr. It was like… salted porridge with smoked herring. I didn’t like it. Now, it’s the only thing in the world I want to eat. I cooked it for my boyfriend once. He didn’t eat it.
  3. What’s your favourite drink?
    • There’s this Japanese wine that tastes like distilled sunligh– I mean, whiskey. Yeah. Straight up.
  4. Do you have any hobbies?
    • [character 1] Murder, mayhem and motorbikes.
    • [character 2] Don’t laugh, but I collect rocks. I told you not to laugh.
  5. Have you been honest with these questions?
    • Only the unimportant ones.

Do you interview your characters? Do you have a particular set of questions you like to use?

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Five Reasons to Fully Develop Your Characters

Characters. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t write a book without ‘em.

In my post about needing Pantsers Anonymous earlier this week, I mentioned that I’d written 60% of my first draft before realising that I didn’t know nearly enough about my protagonist. Not good, right? A few people suggested some great methods for developing characters either before or during writing, and everyone agreed that getting to know your characters is vitally important.

So I got to thinking: How is it that I thought I knew my protagonist, when I really didn’t? How is it that I thought I knew about his motivations, when all I really had was a rough idea that he wanted to be better, stronger, smarter, and more heroic?

That’s when I realised that I had developed his character. To a point. I’d just only concentrated on developing him from the point that interesting things started happening to him.But a fully developed character is so much more than that. A fully developed character is one that we know backwards, forwards and inside out. We may not (and probably shouldn’t) include his/her entire backstory in our writing, but we need to know it.

Here’s why.

1. Because cardboard cut-outs are 2-dimensional.

“Tell me about your character.”

“He’s a taxi driver in New York.”

Surprisingly, that does tell me a fair bit about your character. It tells me his gender, occupation, and location. It paints him as someone who’s seen lots of weird stuff, and probably has nerves of steel. It tells me he’s an adult, and that he probably has a fair bit of life experience. If you add in a couple of descriptive words like ‘grizzled’ or ‘surly’ or ‘dodgy’, I have a pretty good mental image of him. If I had any visual arts skills at all, I could probably draw you a picture of him.

But that’s all it would be: a picture. A 2-dimensional rendering. Because the character has no depth. He has no life outside of taxi driving. He has no goals and no motivations. So he picks up a fare and gets pulled into a situation where he’s got a wounded angel in the back seat and is being chased by blood-thirsty demons intent on destroying the sole creature who can save the world from eternal damnation, you have absolutely no idea how he’ll react.

But develop his character a little more, and suddenly you have a guy who studied comparative religion and philosophy at college, before stumbling across the identities of a number of New York based members of the Illumaniti. He had to go into hiding to save his life, and is working as a taxi driver to earn enough money to keep investigating a secret plot to use demonic powers to control government officials.

Try drawing that on a piece of cardboard!

2. Because he says tomah-to and she says tomay-to.

I was chatting to a friend earlier in the week, and she told me about a book she’s reading at the moment (which will remain nameless). In this particular book, there are two POV characters who narrate the story in alternating chapters. It’s a fairly common method of presenting multiple POVs these days, especially in romance-flavoured books. But my friend isn’t enjoying the structure at all. Why? Because she can never remember which character is narrating at a give time. Their voices are exactly the same.

Regardless of whether you’re writing in 1st or 3rd person, and whether you’ve got one or multiple POVs in your novel, each character should have a distinct voice. You usually shouldn’t need dialogue tags to identify if it’s John or Mary talking. And when you’re dealing with internal dialogue? There should be no question whose head you’re in.

The best way to ensure your characters have distinct voices is to give them distinct personalities, backgrounds, goals, beliefs, and values. And that means spending the time on character development.

3. Because you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

Imagine a teenage boy is standing in front of you. He’s wearing a waiter’s uniform and his name tag says his name is Freddy. He has a gold ring on his left ring finger. His hair is short and neat, and he smiles when he takes your order. But there’s something slightly haunted about his eyes.

Imagine this boy grew up in Manhattan, living in an old brownstone house in Carnegie Hill. His father was a banker, and his mother volunteered for various charities.

Now imagine he grew up in Brooklyn, in a crappy tenement in Cypress Hill. He doesn’t know who his father was, and his mother did whatever it took for her son to go to school and have a better life than she did.

In both bases, the superficial description is the same. But the moment he opens his mouth and starts talking? The moment he has to make a difficult moral choice? That’s when you’ll notice the difference. Because when the chips are down and the stakes are high, the circumstances of his childhood, and the values imparted to him by his parents, will matter.

4. Because the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

No one has an idyllic childhood, then wakes up one day and decides to be a serial killer.

Well, maybe that happens in real life. I don’t know. But in fiction, things have to make sense. In fiction, a cause must come before an effect. In fiction, that serial killer was tortured, tormented and/or abused as a child. Because if she wasn’t, readers won’t buy it.

Every insecurity, ever internal conflict, ever moral dilemma, every hard choice that your character needs to make is only difficult because of something that happened in her past. And if you don’t know anything about her past… Well, how can you possibly figure out what she’s going to do in the future? You’re trying to write an effect without a cause. That doesn’t mean you need to know the cause first — in many cases, it’s easier to work out a character’s past based on what she’s doing in the present. But the trick is to do that consistently. If chapter seven sees her too scared to go into the basement because her step-mother used to lock her in the dark when she was bad, don’t have her willingly going into series of tunnels in chapter three.

5. Because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Everyone is the hero of their own story. Even the villain. The villain in your story probably doesn’t think of himself as a villain. He may be doing villainous things, but he probably thinks that he’s doing them for good reasons. So, if everyone is the hero of their own story, does that mean they all want the same thing?

No. For some people, “winning” means being safe. For others, “winning” means being famous or rich. For still others, “winning” means finding love. (We won’t go into what Charlie Sheen thinks winning means.)

If your hero is going to win the day, you’d better know what he thinks “winning” is all about. Because the guy who desperately wants to find love is probably not going to feel very satisfied if he triumphs over evil, and his reward is a modelling contract.

When do you develop your characters — before or during the writing process? Do you have any tips or suggestions for how to do it effectively?

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Five Reasons to Stop Procrastinating (and Start Writing)

You know how it is. There’s always something that needs to be done before you can work on your novel.

Cook dinner, wash the clothes, stack the dishwasher, sweep the floor, dry the clothes, bath the kids, do the ironing, rearrange your sock drawer, paint the house, knit a scarf, do some more research, buy Scrivener, create a storyboard for your novel, write an outline for your novel, colour it in with fancy colours, buy new pens, clean your desk, backup your hard drive, write a blog post, buy groceries, level your WoW character, read a book, plant a vegie garden, hand-make Christmas cards (all 300 of them), scrapbook your photos (from the last 40 years), clean out the attic/basement/garage, build an extension on the back of the house for your very own writing room…. The list goes on.

Some of these things are actually important. (Feeding your children, for example.)

Some of these things actually help you write your novel. (Writing an outline, researching, or cleaning your desk.)

But many of the things we prioritize above novel-writing are merely clever ways to procrastinate.

There are a lot of reasons we procrastinate. I’m not going to try to cover them all here. Instead, I’m just going to give you five reasons to STOP.

1. It won’t get better if you pick it.

Writers are imaginative people. It kind of comes with the territory. The upside to this is… well, you know the upside. The downside is that it’s all too easy to imagine things going badly.

What if I suck as a writer? What if everything I write is terrible? What if I’m not good enough to write a whole novel? What if I write a book and it sucks? What if my friends read it and they think it’s terrible? What if I never get any better? What if I do, but I can’t get an agent? What if I get an agent and can’t get a publishing contract? What if I get published, but no one buys my book? Or what if I self-publish but no one buys my book? What if people buy my book and they hate it? What if people hate my book and they write scathing one-star reviews everywhere about how awful I am?

What if I’m a failure at the only thing I’ve ever really, really wanted to do?

Woah, Nelly. Hang on a minute. Before you start relegating yourself to the “I Failed as a Writer so My Life Is Worthless” club, how about you actually sit down and write something?

Fear is natural. Fear of the unknown. Fear that you won’t succeed. Fear that you will, but it won’t live up to your imagination. But that fear will never go away if you feed it. Instead, practice overcoming it. And there’s no better way to do that than to keep writing. 

2. It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.

 You know the most fun part of writing a novel? The first chapter.

Hands up if you’ve got half a dozen files labelled “Chapter One” somewhere on your computer. Keep your hand raised if you’ve got more than a dozen. It’s a little known fact* that one of the easiest ways to procrastinate when you’re writing a novel is to… get this… start a new novel.

The thing about writing is that the fun bits are fun, but the hard bits are hard. (Actually, I’m pretty sure that applies to everything in life.) So we start our new novel feeling fresh-faced and bushy-tailed, bounding into the fun part of introducing characters and having everything go horribly, terrible, disturbingly wrong. And then…

Well, then writing seems a bit more like work. We can’t figure out the next plot point. Or we realise our characters can’t possibly escape from the situation they’re in. Or it suddenly occurs to us that the entire story is one clichéd mess of overdone tropes and Mary Sue characters. And it’s not fun anymore. So you go back and edit what you’ve written. Repeatedly.

But let’s be honest here. How many people want to read an awesome first chapter, followed by a one paragraph summary that goes something like this:

…and then the hero finds a heap of clues, and eventually realises it was his BEST FRIEND ALL ALONG! There’s some fighting and stuff, and in the end the hero kills his best friend, and his best friend’s girlfriend falls in love with him, and they live happily ever after. Oh, and he’s also gets all his best friend’s stuff. The end.

If your story feels like it’s not working, take some time out to plan, plot, outline, create colour-coded maps of your novel, and anything else that appeals to you. But don’t do it forever. Don’t do it as a means of procrastination. And don’t start a new novel. Work out what happens next in your story, and then get back to writing it.

* This is not actually a little known fact. We’ve all done it.

3. Tomorrow never comes.

As I said above, there are a lot of legitimate reasons why you don’t get any novel-writing done. There’s your day job, for a start. And you need to spend time with your Significant Other and your children. There’s that pesky need for food, drink and sleep. And society frowns on you if you don’t adhere to at least some measure of cleanliness.

But let me fill you in on a little secret: It never gets any better.

You will always have legitimate drains on your time. Always. The trick is to find a way to fit writing into your schedule even when you’re busy. Maybe you legitimately don’t have time to write every day. Or even every week. But there’s a very fine line between not writing because you don’t have time, and not writing because you’re procrastinating.

Did you know that over 85% of diets start on a Monday? And the main reason they fail? Because when the dieter has a piece of cake on Wednesday, she says to herself, “Well, I’ve blown it for this week. I may as well call this week a wash and start again on Monday.” Then they binge on whatever-they-like for the rest of the week.

Don’t be the writer who says, “Well, I was supposed to write on Wednesday afternoon but I was too tired and too busy. I’ve already blown my weekly target, so I may as well call this week a wash and start again next week.”

Don’t write tomorrow. Write today. 

4. It’s written in the stars (but you don’t have a telescope).

 Next month you could walk out of your house and get hit by a bus. And when you’re lying there on the street, the world getting dimmer and dimmer around you, which thought would you prefer to go through your head:

  1. Thank goodness I spent all that time cleaning the cornices and cataloguing my fourth grade stamp collection!
  2. Thank goodness I finished writing my novel!

Yes, I know this is entirely unrealistic. (Because who keeps their fourth grade stamp collection?) But it illustrates a point.

Anyone who has had a near-death experience will tell you they spent a lot of time re-evaluating their life, really looking at what’s important and how they can follow their dreams. Because they’re suddenly aware of their own mortality. Suddenly aware that maybe they can’t put off their dreams until after Christmas, after the kids are at school, after their finances are secure, after they retire, after anything at all.

Because “after” may not come. All you really have is “now”.

5. No one else can do it.

Do you know how many people can write the novel you’ve got in your head? Only one. You.

No one else in the world can tell your story as well as you can.

And you have a responsibility to tell it. You have a responsibility to yourself, to the people who will be your readers, and to the world at large. Because, in this one thing, you are completely and utterly irreplaceable.

So don’t deny the world your story. You are the only one who can make your dream a reality. Sit down, start writing and stop procrastinating.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to work on my novel. (As long as I don’t get distracted on the way.)

Are you a procrastinator? Any words of wisdom for us all?

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Five Reasons to Attend Writing Conferences, Conventions and Festivals

If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you’ll know that I recently went to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. (I wrote about it here, here and here.) So it probably comes as no surprise that I think Festivals like these are a great investment for writers of all levels: from the beginner who has just decided they’d like to find out how to put a creative pen to paper for the first time through to the seasoned professional with a couple of books under their belt, and everyone in between.

So, with no ado whatsoever, I give you my top five reasons to attend.

1. I’m an Individual, Just Like You and You and You

Writers, and artists in general, aren’t like everyone else. We’ve often grown up being told we’re dreamers, or we’ve got our heads in the clouds, or we need to start living in the real world. We think differently. We look at the world differently.We overhear a conversation on the bus about two girls visiting their sick grandfather and our first thought isn’t “Oh, how sad…” it’s “I wonder which one of them is poisoning him for his money. Maybe she’s not even his real granddaughter. Maybe she’s a fairy or a shape-shifter or a demon and she’s taken the form of his granddaughter because he owns an old building that was built on top of a portal to another world and— damn it, where’s my notebook?”

Writing can feel very isolating. Not just physically (although being trapped in a room with a recalcitrant WIP is an exhausting prospect), but also mentally. It’s very easy to start to feel like we’re all alone in our difference. Self-doubt creeps on to our shoulders and whispers its heady sweet nothings in our ear: “You’ll never be a real writer. Your writing sucks. No one likes you. And your clothes are at least ten years out of date.”

And then you go to a writing event, and suddenly you’re not alone. You’re surrounded by tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people who go through all the same stuff that you do. Every day. It feels exciting and heady and like you’ve finally found a place where you can be yourself and say the weird things in your head out loud and everyone accepts everyone else. Because they’re just as odd as you are. And some of their clothes are at least twenty years out of date. Because who cares about clothes when you can sit down over a selection of food and drink and talk about the real issues. Like: Is the sick grandfather really as helpless as he appears? 

2. It’s Dark and We’re Wearing Sunglasses

If you’ve got a day job (or small children) in addition to your writing, it’s almost guaranteed that your writing comes second on a daily basis. If writing is your day job, it’s almost guaranteed that you’re so busy churning out the words, you don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think about the hows and the whys and the wherefores of what you’re doing on a daily basis. But sometimes, that’s what you really need.

When you’re at a festival, you have the opportunity to put on your blinkers, lower the shades, and concentrate one hundred percent on the art, craft and business of writing. You don’t have to keep stopping and starting so you can prepare meals. You don’t need to limit yourself to an hour a day so you can maintain a relationship. You don’t have to focus on your daily word count or your deadline. You have permission to sit back, take a deep breath, and fully immerse yourself in the joy of writing. And isn’t that worth the price of admission alone?

3. Old News in a New Way

I’m going to be honest — I rarely learn anything entirely new at the BWF. That’s probably true for most people once they reach a certain level of understanding and knowledge of the craft. I’ve read enough “how to write” books and blogs to know the terminology and the current trends. I’ve read enough fiction to understand the way narrative flows, and what does and doesn’t work. I’ve written enough stories to recognise my own writing style and be comfortable in expressing my thoughts with squiggles on a page. I don’t go looking for brand new information — I go looking for old information expressed in a new way.

An example of that would be my sudden epiphany about Inciting Incidents last week. I’ve read about Inciting Incidents over and over and over (and, possibly, over). The fact that you need one as close to the beginning of a story as possible is not new. But hearing the same information delivered by a new person, in a new environment, with different words, at the right time… BANG! Instant epiphany about my WIP.  

And until you get there, you don’t know what old news is going to hit you in a new way and totally change the way you think about your writing.

4. Answer Me These Questions Three

In one of my posts about the recent Festival, I said:

Even if I did type out all 3000 words (roughly) of my notes, it still wouldn’t be” everything”. If it worked that way, we’d all just buy the book of the workshop rather than attend workshops at all. It’s as much the interaction between the participants and the teacher that makes a workshop great as it is the information presented.

One of the things you don’t get when you’re reading a book or blog about the craft of writing, is the chance to ask questions. Not just the “what does that mean” type questions (which, let’s face it, you can probably ask Google) but the “how does this apply to me” type questions.  In a class or workshop, you can ask questions. You can ask about using modern slang in YA (try to avoid it), or about changing from past to present tense in the middle of the book (make sure there’s a good reason), or about how much bad language is too much (depends on your genre/market). You can ask for clarification or examples. You can interact — not just with the presenter, but also with the other participants. And you’d be amazed what you can learn.

5. It’s Not What You Know…

We all know the old quip. And we also all know that there’s a certain amount of truth in it. A writing festival, convention, conference, etc is a great place to connect with people at your own level as well as meet people more advanced in their careers. Plus, of course, there are plenty of stories of people meeting their agents, publishers, editors, etc at writing events. So take your business cards, talk to the people sitting next to you if you’re too shy to approach random strangers, and give yourself the opportunity to meet like-minded people.

Have you been to a Writing Event? Did you enjoy it? What reasons did I miss?

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