Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gift horses and such

A bit of a personal post, sorry - I've driven myself mad today going in circles around my work, and wanted to pick your collective creative brains ('picking someone's brain' is really a disgusting term, isn't it? Horrible mental image of someone fiddling inside a brain like an ape performing a social grooming ritual. But anyway).

I struggle a lot with guilt. Guilt that I'm not doing enough, or not doing more. It means that I find it hard to enjoy anything unreservedly. In the middle of something I love doing, I'll stop and think, "this isn't good enough, you're wasting time, you should be doing something else, it's taking you too long, you should be further along than you are, you should be able to cope better, work harder, work longer hours, you should have achieved more in your life by now." I spend a lot of my day listening to myself say things like this. This constant mental argument is exhausting.

One of the things that's making me most guilty at the moment is that I'm doing what I love. I know this sounds weird, but bear with me. I have enough money, plenty of time, and I'm writing full-time. This is what I have always wanted to do. There's a big part of me, however, that's waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm almost waiting to be punished, as if this great good fortune has to be balanced out by something awful - as if I don't deserve it. I guess I'm looking the gift horse in the mouth and attempting to send it back. It's not rational, but it's a surprisingly strong belief, and I'm fighting with myself in an attempt not to act it out.

I have a tendency to self-sabotage. When something's going well, or I have a big opportunity, I often (and usually subconsciously) mess it up. I only realise this well after the fact. I avoid a potentially important meeting by getting a panic attack, fail to return a call that could lead to new and exciting work, back out of something that sounds fun because I worry I'm not going to be any good at it (this is where self-sabotage and a destructive tendency to perfectionism combine in one neat package. The mind is a wonderful thing). I think the urge is stronger now because I have nearly finished the Masters, and my safety framework is about to disappear. When the Masters is done, I'm not going to be working towards a degree - I'm just going to be writing, for better or for worse.

So, here are the ways I usually act these feelings out:

1) Avoidance - speaks for itself, really.

2) Psychosomatic Girl Strikes Again - I get sick in one way or another.

3) Resistance - this can appear as crazy restlessness that has me chasing my own tail, or as a sudden loss of interest and enthusiasm.

4) Misplaced virtue - for example, "I should get a proper job, it's not fair on LOML." (Read: "I'm scared of trying and failing and I'm conveniently finding a seemingly reasonable and unselfish reason not to try"). LOML wants me to be doing what I'm doing. We don't need more money. We don't have kids or a mortgage or anyone relying on us (well, apart from Mink and the goldfish, but their needs are simple. The pot plants fend for themselves - they have to, I'm erratic with watering).

Do any of you have this 'proper job' belief? Do you know where it came from? I can't pinpoint exactly when this idea was instilled in me - it didn't come from my mum, I know. My stepdad certainly had his thoughts on the matter, but I don't think the things he said could have seeded such a strong belief. There is a very big part of me that believes work 'should' be from nine to five, Monday to Friday, that it 'should' be difficult and that, if I'm happy and enjoying what I'm doing, it's not 'real' work and it's not a 'real' job. It's like I secretly believe I have to be unhappy to be a proper adult. It's weird. I really want to give myself permission to be a writer without guilt.

I guess I'm wondering whether any of you share these tendencies, and how you deal with them. I've found affirmations very helpful in the past - any other tips?

On a completely different subject, thank you so much for all the questions you left in the comments of the previous post - they're great! Can't wait to answer them.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Since I was done with the 'flu, I thought it would be nice to pass it on to LOML. I'm all about recycling. So he's in bed, and it's my turn to make cups of tea and nag him about drinking enough fluids and going to bed early (payback time, LOML!). I made it outside today - hurrah! - and found some amazing things to put in the next shop update. One particular dress is stunningly beautiful, but too small for me, which makes me sad. It will, however, make some small person very happy.

I spent the rest of today experimenting with the first chapter of the book. In case you're interested, here's a brief overview of the changes I'm making.

1) Narrowing the focus - originally the book spanned fifteen years. Now it spans three. As the lovely Rachael said to me, this is a common trap for books based on autobiographical material. You tend to keep events and characters in because 'that's how it was', and not because they're important to the story. Even though my book is (ostensibly, I see now) a novel, there was a lot of autobiographical flotsam and jetsam in there that wasn't really important to anyone else but me. I've zoomed in on the important stuff. This has the double benefits of making it read more like a novel and less like a memoir, and making the whole thing more urgent and pacey.

2) Cutting out redundant characters - some of the characters, when I really examined them, served a similar purpose. When these literary twins occur, I'm blending them together or erasing one of them.

3) Some under-used but essential characters are being inflated and are coming to the fore, and some characters who took up way too much space for their level of importance have been deflated.

4) The narrator was too passive - things happened to her and around her rather than being initiated and driven by her. I'm making her much more of a decision-maker in her own life.

5) Unnecessary sub-plots that served no purpose are being snipped out.

6) The stakes weren't high enough. I'm upping them. High stakes make for exciting reading.

7) I'm giving the 'villains' more of a human face.

I've learned a lot about novel-building from this book, which is fantastic. It has been encouraging, but humbling too - I get a lot of things right by instinct, but I also get a lot of things wrong. Constructing a novel is hard, and definitely not something you can do by the seat of your pants. I know all the things listed above probably seem glaringly obvious - Novel-writing 101 - and they were. Six months after I finished the book. Not at all obvious one month after. Just goes to show that you really do need to allow your work time to rest - to rise or sink, like a souffle. I think my book rose around the edges but had a big soggy indentation in the middle. Metaphorically. I wish I knew how to create the acute accent on souffle. Does anyone know how?

I hope all this made sense - it is quite late, and when I start talking about souffles, it's probably time to go to bed.

Big news in our household today - LOML and I are going over to the UK in August to see both sets of our grandparents, and we'll probably be in the States for a while as well. So excited.

I hope you all had a good start to your week!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rainy days and Mondays

It would be great if someone could come round and get me out of my own head today. Seriously. Come round, unscrew the top of my head, tuck my brain under your arm and take it for a walk. Take it to an art gallery, or out for a coffee. It needs the fresh air. And I'm sure it's great company for anyone who hasn't been spending the entire morning arguing with it and poking it with a (metaphorical) stick.

I think my brain and I need to start seeing other people.

Currently, planning out the new shape of the novel feels like trying to get Mink into his cat-box when we're taking him to the vet. He suddenly becomes a lot bigger. And spikier. And grows about seven more legs. Just when you think you've got him in, you realise he still has a toe outside. When you've pushed the toe in, you realise his head is out.

I've already cut the book down from 108,000 words to 92,000. And I'm only just getting started.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Friday the 13th

I always wince when I have to print out a copy of my book. Hundreds of pages! Not only bad for the environment, but also bad for the wallet, as our printer cartridge always seems to run out when I'm printing manuscripts. Those things are seriously expensive. But, it is necessary. I am a very visual person, as evidenced by the Amazing Wall of Post-its. So, as I write scenes that need to be added into the New Improved Book and cut scenes that need to die, I have to see some physical representation of those processes. Printing it out seemed a good idea, and I started this morning. Of course, halfway through printing, our cartridge ran out. And we are broke. So I yelled at the printer for a while, then did a sort of angry hopping dance around the house. Now I am annoyed and working on-screen until pay-day, when we can get a new cartridge. It's just not the same!

I found a good article on revising your novel by Holly Lisle. I particularly liked this part:

"When you finally finish the first draft of your novel, the temptation to just print it, box it, and start it on its rounds can be almost overwhelming. By the time you've written anywhere from 90,000 to 150,000 words, you can be pretty tired of the storyline, the characters, the plots and subplots, and you're generally itching to start that new project, too -- the one that started creeping into your dreams three or four months ago and that has now become almost an obsession."

Very true, and it's hard to take time away from my new project to dive back into the old one. Especially since it's such a daunting task. I have already cut about 10,000 words from the novel, and I'm just getting started. Whole scenes have to be added in. Whole sections have to be rewritten. The chronology of the book is changing completely. It's going to be an almost completely different book, in lots of ways - but still the same, in the way an axe would still be the same axe, theoretically, even if you replaced the head and the handle.

Being me, I need a deadline by which to complete the revisions. Holly Lisle says she does it in one or two weeks. I don't think I'm there yet. I'm giving myself one month - till 13 March. Which my calendar tells me is also Friday 13th. Is this a good omen or a bad one? I choose to think good. I am a little freaked out because I'm not sure when the oral examination part of my Masters will be, or what client work will come up in the next few weeks (the cursed unpredictability of freelancing!), but then my natural state isn't far from freaked out anyway.This weekend's job is to complete the new outline. I've started writing down long lists of notes on all the changes, but I want to go through chapter by chapter and write a summary of what happens in each. Wish me luck!

On the plus side, the Masters thesis (book plus supplementary essay) is all handed in. It will be ready to pick up from the Registry next week, and I have to cough up $40 for the privilege of having the university print and bind it. You think after paying thousands of dollars for the fees that they would throw in the binding for free. That would be nice.

I completely recommend reading that Holly Lisle piece if you're at the same stage in your novel as I am - it's ridiculously helpful. And it gives you permission to go out and buy lots of fun stationery, which is one of my favourite things to do.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

And so it begins

It is so hot! Well into the thirties. Too hot to do anything. Too hot to be wearing clothes, really, but that would be illegal.

I am freaking out completely. I've gone through the book slashing and burning, getting rid of everything I don't think I need, and I am left with scraps that need to be re-knitted together to form something of an entirely different shape. It is depressing, because my beloved book is lying in pieces on the floor. It is exhilarating, because I know that it is going to be a better book once I'm finished. Most of all, though, it is overwhelming, and I'm kind of a wreck today. I'm changing so much! It's terrifying! It requires a lot of exclamation marks!

I have written out an outline of the 'new' book - the new shape I think it should take. It is a much more novel-like shape. It's fun to listen to my brain throw up all the excuses it can to escape working on these changes.

"Ooh, I've suddenly had a brilliant idea for a painting/sewing project/song that I need to get started on RIGHT NOW. After all, that's creative, right? I mean, I shouldn't put off something CREATIVE."

"Good lord, that patch of wall I've been staring at has a mark on it. Not only do I need to spend fifteen minutes getting it out, I also need to go all around the house looking for other marks to erase. Even some that are invisible to the naked eye."

"I'll just pop out and have a look at my local op-shop. Just to have a quick break."

"Hey, someone's updated their blog. I'm going to take a quick look ..."

"Time for another pot of coffee."

"Oh god, I'm such a failure. I'm going to go and think about what a failure I am for fifteen minutes."

"The house is a mess. I can't work when it's a mess. I'd better just get everything cleaned up first."

"I'm hungry! For something very specific that requires a trip to the supermarket!"

"There's no way I'll ever make it as a writer. I'm going to spend an hour updating my CV and looking on job websites for jobs that I would never apply for in a million years."

I'm kind of interested to see what form my resistance is going to take this week. I'm sure it will appear. It usually takes the form of an eye infection, for some reason, but it has also manifested itself as insane busy-ness, a recurrence of panic attacks, a crisis of some kind. Today I have been crazily restless - tapping fingers, jigging my knee up and down, wiggling my feet, trying to restrain myself from jumping up and doing something. It would be quite entertaining to watch if there was a hidden camera, I would imagine. I think 90% of writing discipline is keeping your bottom firmly attached to the seat.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Long post ahead!

Oh jeez. Breakthroughs galore (I feel like it should be 'breaksthrough', like 'culs de sac' or 'passers-by', but then I would have to start saying 'hamsburger' and 'lawnsmower').

So. I have been reading through Old Book (as in, the one for the Masters) and proofing it, ready to be submitted. As you know, I started submitting it to agents back in September, only a couple of months after it was finished. I felt confident in the book, and I wanted to get it out there as soon as possible. I had edited it exhaustively, but I hadn't really spent enough time 'out' of it to get any sort of distance. Reading through it today, however, I experienced an unexpected revelation.

I haven't felt really, rock-bottom down about any of the rejections from agents. I have been sad, sure, but I have never felt like giving up, and I have never felt like I'm pursuing something that's out of my grasp. I don't think I am. The rejections, despite their obvious downside, have been 'good' ones (you know what I mean). If I was going to summarise the pros and cons from each letter, I would say that all of them said that the book is well-written and that they enjoyed it, and all of them said it would be hard to sell because it reads more like a memoir than a novel.

There are different types of criticism. There's the amorphous, unhelpful kind: "I just didn't like it." There's the personal, even less helpful kind: "I can't believe you wrote this piece of crap. What were you thinking?" And then there's the useful, constructive kind, the kind that makes you go "Aha! So that's it! I can fix that." You hear it with recognition and gratitude (and okay, maybe a little petulance, because you are human, but only for a second), because some part of you knows it is true. That kind of criticism opens doors rather than slamming them in your face. And that's what the statement "it reads more like a memoir than a novel" did for me. Because it absolutely does. Reading over it now, now that I've had a few months to let it settle and gain some sort of objectivity, I can see that far more clearly.

I'm not sorry I shopped it out to agents so soon after editing it, though, because in a weird way the rejections I received were a sort of validation. They were saying, "You're in the right business, you're a good writer, but this needs some work before I'll take it on." And I've learned an awful lot about the agent-hunting process, and feel a lot more confident approaching them. But what I do know is that I can see a clear path to creating a more novel-like version of the novel. A way to make it better. A way which will involve a LOT of work which I will have to do while I'm working on Current Novel. Totally worth it.

This is not to say I'm giving up on finding an agent for the book - after all, it's still sitting with several agents who are yet to respond. I just feel like I can rework it while I'm writing New Book, and make it better - solve some of the problems. We'll see.

On an entirely different subject, I have a great story to tell you! You may remember the vintage dress that LOML bought for me as an anniversary present, while we were in Nelson. Well, I went to Tete a Tete Vintage yesterday (and bought something lovely to show you when the weather clears up, but that's another story), and spotted a coat hanging on one of the racks. It was made of identical fabric to this dress, and had the same very distinctive button detail, one on each lapel. The buttonholes are edged in a darker fabric - very unique. When I looked at the label, I saw it was made by Juliet of Christchurch, same as my dress. It was surreal. I turned to Vanessa (one of the two owners) and said, "I think I have the dress that matches this." When I told her I had bought it in Nelson, she got all excited as well and told me that a friend of hers had bought the coat in Nelson. Evidently someone had separated the two pieces up there and sold them separately. But what are the odds that I would find the dress up there, and then find the coat in my favourite vintage store here in Christchurch, miles away? Synchronicity, I tell you!

I put the coat on lay-by, of course. I mean, how could I not buy it? Fate will not be denied.
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