Writing

Dead Wrong: First Draft Complete!

It’s been a while since my last update. There’s two reasons for that. First, I went back and edited a bunch of old blog entries dating back to 2014. It was actually quite nostalgic, reading entries as I worked on Thorns and Fangs, chronicling my struggle and enthusiasm.

I failed to realise however, that in editing the blog posts, I would cause them to crosspost  to Twitter and Facebook. Whoops! I inadvertently spammed my timeline. Sorry! After that debacle, I decided I should hold off posting for a while to avoid annoying anyone.

The other reason I haven’t been updating, is because I’ve been busy working on Dead Wrong—the fourth and final book in Thorns and Fangs. And approximately an hour ago, I typed the last words of my first draft, giving Nate and Ben a very, very, well-deserved HEA.

It feels good! I was surprised how easy it was to step back into New Camden and into the lives of these characters. Writing Nate, Ben, Aki, Gunn and Kenzies, I actually felt like I was hanging out with old friends. While I am really happy for Nate and Ben, getting to the point they are now, I feel somewhat bittersweet knowing that this is the end of our journey together.

I’m comforting myself by reminding myself that October is the start of a new chapter in this story. I’m revisiting Banging the Supernatural (And Other Poor Life Choices). I’ve been sitting on the completed first draft of this, Aki’s story, for years now. And I’m glad I waited. I now see that what was going to be a self-contained side-story has the potential to be a new series, with a second, possibly even a third story waiting. What can I say? Aki doesn’t make things easy, not even for himself.

This also means that I am on track for my insane goal of writing a story a month from July through December. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but I’m feeling positive. Three down, three more to go!

August Done/September To-Do

I am happy to say that I am feeling much, much better than I was my last goal-setting post. That cold lingered on but met its match in Rotorua. I don’t know when I noticed I wasn’t coughing as much, but I do know that ever since I got back to Christchurch I have been feeling more like my usual self than I have been in months.

There are a couple of possibilities.

1. I have an allergy to something in Christchurch.

2. Rotorua’s geothermal waters boiled my cold germs out of my system.

3. I’ve been back in New Zealand long enough that my body has adjusted to all the local germs and now I’m good.

Really hoping that it is not the first option! Of course it is early days yet, but it will be interesting to see how September develops. And on that note–goals!

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August Goals:

  • Freelance project #1  Done!
  • Get to work on Gentlemen Don’t Murder Not just done—the first draft is complete!
  • Return Life After Humanity edits. Done! 
  • Attend RWNZ Conference 2017 Done!
  • Get organised for Dead Wrong. Done!

Not on my list: keeping my blog up to date. I let this slide because I needed to concentrate on getting prepared for conference and then working on Gentlemen Don’t Murder. I don’t feel bad because the results speak for themselves. Also, I’ve made up for neglecting the blog since!

September Goals: 

  • Edit Gentlemen Don’t Murder.
  • Complete Dead Wrong.
  • Freelance Project #3
  • Regular blog updates
  • Submit work to agent
  • Work on craft

Pretty straightforward…except for that last one. To be honest, I’m not sure how I’m going to put that into action, but I know what it’s something I want to do. I own a ton of writing advice books, so I might search them for suggestions, or go-over the notes I took at RWNZ to try to come up with a to-do list or a checklist.

If anyone has suggestions, I would love to hear them! My weakest areas are creating dynamic scenes, hooking readers and investing characters with emotion—or more accurately bringing that emotion out in the writing because I know they’ve got emotions and they know they’ve got emotions, it’s just communicating that. Thanks in advance!

A Year of Fear: Writing Full Time

August last year was a big month for me. I left behind eleven years of teaching English in Japan and came back to New Zealand. I had limited savings, no job lined up, and was entirely dependant on public transport/the generosity of my family for getting myself places. I gave myself one year to write full time, and then I would look for a real job. The one year limit was my way of dealing with my fear of the unknown, and of failing. A year was a really long time, and it made me sound as if I had a plan. And if it didn’t work out, well, it was only an experiment. A year’s sabbatical.

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I have no idea what I’m doing. Whee!

A year later, I can say that returning to New Zealand was the right decision. Only when I was away from did I realise just how much the stressful situation at my base school was affecting at me. I’ve got my full driver’s licence and my own car. I’ve made a ton of new writing friends and attended two incredible RWNZ conferences. But the biggest most important change has been how I live with fear.

This is the journal entry I wrote when leaving Japan last year:

August 9th, 2016. 

On flight to Auckland, leaving Japan after eight years with [company], six years in [town]. I am writing this not so much to mark the occasion as I am because I need to document my emotions. It has been an interesting week and as I keep going between sadness at saying goodbyes/wrapping up a big part of my life, and excitement for what is ahead, I have noticed that I keep hitting terror, especially when I try to sleep. Last night on the train, I realised I was scared and shying away from the why. I made myself look at what I was afraid of—not knowing what is going to happen when I get back to New Zealand—and felt better, but waiting for the plane to board this evening and talking to Mum via Skype, I realise the fear had snuck back. I need to acknowledge the fear and document it because I suspect this is not the first time I will be making a life choice that scares me and being able to put things in perspective will help. 

Fear was on my mind then, and that’s really interesting because I kept running into fear a lot, those first months in New Zealand especially. My biggest problem was sleeping. I was lying awake, night after night, while my mind cycled through an endless series of worries. My health and energy levels tanked. My usual coping methods weren’t working, so I consulted a professional counsellor about ways I could reduce my stress.

Big surprise! A lot of his recommendations were things I was already doing–goal setting, keeping a journal, making a list of things that I could do to address the things that were worrying me. But he introduced me to progressive muscle relaxation. Turns out that despite no longer being at my school in Japan, just the thought of a certain colleague was enough to make my entire body tense and trigger an angry reaction. By purposefully relaxing my muscles before going to bed I was able to go to sleep—and stay asleep.

I took steps to regain my independence. I started house-sitting and, when I realised that I was afraid of learning to drive, took lessons with a professional driving instructor whose car had a dual brake system (another really, really good decision. I’m sure that gave me the confidence I needed so I could concentrate on the driving). Driving itself was really good for me. It did not come easily at all, and after the first few lessons I felt like I was no longer improving and became frustrated. I’m the sort of person who takes failure personally and quits when things don’t come easily-but I needed that licence. This is where my teaching career came in handy! Having encouraged students to persist learning a foreign language with often contradictory rules, I knew it’s not how easily you pick it up that measures learning. I knew that if I persisted I would get there. And I did. In November I got my restricted licence, in March my full.

But fear is insidious. It found new ground in legitimate worries. The biggest one was money. Learning to drive was expensive, as was paying for fuel and insurance and servicing on my car. The royalties I was earning for my stories were just enough to cover my phone bill, but they wouldn’t stretch to groceries and fuel. Things like replacing tyres and repairs came out of my very depleted savings. I had started working as a freelancer, but my income fluctuated wildly month to month. I wanted to build myself a safety net but my emergency money disappeared as quickly as I could save it. I started stressing over finances and spent a lot of time seeking out new clients. My editing/proof-reading/ghost-writing work took priority over my writing time and left me too tired to write on my own projects, while I struggled to set prices low enough to compete with other freelancers that would still allow me to get by.

It wasn’t until June when I looked back at the first six months of 2017 that I realised how much my financial stress was holding me back. I had plans to write eight stories in 2017. Half the year was gone and I’d written two stories. I made the decision that from now on freelancing would fit in around my writing, not the other way round. Using the journalling methods outlined in The Journal Writing Superpower Secret I’ve kept myself focused and reminded of why my writing needs to be a priority. I’ve also used mindfulness techniques to combat stress, and between the two methods it seems to be working. I wrote a novella in July and a novel in August, and am planning one story a month until the end of the year. I’ve also started applying for jobs. I’m hoping that removing finances from the list of things I need to worry about while make up for time lost with mental energy reserved for writing.

Then there were old worries in new shapes. In Japan, I was very conscious of needing to conduct myself well even outside of school hours, knowing I was viewed as a representative of my company/New Zealanders in a town where everyone knew who I was. I still care a lot about making people happy/not disappointing expectations people have of me. Once I was back home, I spent a lot of time worrying that my relatives looked down on me because I wasn’t earning a big salary, that I had disappointed them. I discovered how deep this fear when when I signed up for the Shave for a Cure fundraising challenge. I was terrified my family would disapprove. Instead, they blew me away with their generous support. I still miss my hair, but knowing that I don’t need to conform to have the support of my family means so, so much more.

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The final fear is tied up with writing. Last year at the RWNZ conference, Michael Hauge who led seminar’s on story structure and the hero’s journey challenged us to take our own journey by identifying the thing which we were most afraid of–and doing it. For me this was really easy. Just the thought of pitching to an agent or hearing my work read aloud and critiqued gave me an immediate fear reaction. Which was odd. I had a few stories published and they were getting positive and negative views, both of which I was handling. I couldn’t be afraid of critique, could I?

Actually, yes! I felt safe writing about my fail!vampires and Morgen train wrecks for an audience that felt more like friends…and  the idea of putting my work before a larger audience scared the heck out of me. I was afraid that once my work was put in front of people who didn’t know me from the DRitC events or Facebook or wherever, that they’d see me for what I was: a clueless wannabe author with literary pretensions and clumsy prose, no idea of what she was doing and over complicated plots. That if I wrote something more mainstream, I’d find out I wasn’t ready for leaving my safety zone. I’d fail–and this time I wouldn’t have the comforting excuse of a really niche genre to hide behind. So I decided in August last year that this year I was going to conference and I was going to pitch a story that would appeal to a bigger audience.

The murder mystery (first draft finished yesterday) is that story. And it’s really funny. Before conference, I really had to fight the story to write it. I was constantly second guessing myself as I wrote. I eventually abandoned it in January. But then we had a family event and for reasons I don’t want to go into, it became really important to have the murder mystery finished as quickly as possible. In the lead up to conference, I wrote 23000 words over eighteen days. After conference, I wrote 49,000 words in six days. What made the difference? I went to conference. I pitched the murder mystery to agents. I heard it read aloud and critiqued in front of a group of writers who I respect myself. And instead of devastating me, it made me wonder what on earth I’d been afraid of.

Disclaimer: I’m sure that there will be all the panic when Gentlemen Don’t Murder comes out. But something really interesting happened to me when I decided that in 2017 I was going to pitch.

I had a year of knowing I was going to introduce myself to agents and pitch a story to them. And somewhere in that year, I stopped introducing myself as ‘a writer, but you don’t want to read what I write.’ When I met people at conference this year, I said ‘Hi, I’m Gillian. I write gay paranormal romance.’ This wasn’t a conscious decision either. It just happened–but it would not have happened if I hadn’t already decided that I was no longer afraid of being a small writer in a big pond. All the fears that I faced were stepping stones to growth.

Was my growth because of the fear or despite the fear? I don’t know, but I do know that acknowledging and addressing my fears then coming up with a strategy is the biggest reason I’m not on a plane heading back to Japan right now. Managing my fear is the best thing I could have done for myself–and I hope you’re encouraged to look at your fear in a different way.

Books that helped me address my fear (links go directly to Amazon):

The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey by Joanna Penn.

The Journal Writing Superpower Secret: Get Productivity Superpowers, Kill Procrastination and Stop Self-Sabotage, and Then Take Over the World by Michael Forest

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Prosperous Creation: Make Art and Make Money at the Same Time (Growth Hacking For Storytellers 5) by Monica Leonelle

RWNZ 2017: The Highlights

It’s been an intense four days in Rotorua. I got back to Christchurch last night, slept soundly and still woke up exhausted. I’m still digesting everything I learned at conference, but here are a few highlights:

  • pitched to two agents, and had a really good conversation about the paranormal genre with an editor.
  • put two pieces into two seperate Cold Reads, getting feedback on my writing in a public setting, and not wimping out–or being devastated by the criticism I received.
  • caught up with old friends and met knew friends
  • got to know my wonderful roomie a lot more!
  • found myself being more social than I have ever been before
  • getting to meet some of the entrants and judges from the contests I’ve managed
  • some great presentations from some incredible presenters
  • geothermal pools in the hotel
  • Goodie bag with books in it!

and much, much more.

My main take-away writing wise was how important it is to engage readers with emotions and questions in every scene. This probably sounds beyond obvious, but I tend to equate emotion with melodrama and err too far on the side of understated… or even not stated at all!

I also got a huge boost from three solid days of hanging out with motivated, creative, dedicated and successful authors. I’m back into working on the mystery, making up for lost time. I think it will be a few days before my energy levels approach anything like normal… Good thing I came away with lots of reading material as I recover from conference!

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Fear and Loathing in Roto-vegas (not really, but come on–I couldn’t not use the title)

As I write this, I am on a very bumpy plane somewhere above the North Island on my way to Rotorua and the annual Romance Writers of New Zealand conference. I am terrified—and it’s nothing to do with the intermittent turbulence, or the fact that my computer is rapidly running out of battery. No, I’ve been low key anxious even before I got on the plane. Since Saturday, at least. I’m worried about the conference.

It took me until today to realise I was worrying about it. After all, this is my second year at conference. There’s a contingent of locals coming up, and I have friends I’ve made over the last year to catch up with. There is absolutely no reason I should feel nervous—but I do. And I realised that my fears are two-pronged.

Firstly, I’ve been stressing about all the little things building up. I had an ambitious to-do list of things to do before conference, and that has been added to with freelance clients popping up with last minute requests. My writing projects have been left to slide as I focused on the freelance stuff or worse—was so paralyzed by everything I had to do that I did nothing.

My major source of worry, however, is that I’m putting myself outside my comfort zone this conference. I’m participating in the cold reads—where the first two pages of your story are read out loud to an audience including an editor or agent, who stops the reader where they would put the manuscript down and gives feedback on what works and what doesn’t. I’ve also signed up to pitch to two agents and an editor, and that is really starting to intimidate me—which is a sure sign that I need to do this.

At last years conference in Auckland, the keynote speaker was Michael Hauge who is an incredible speaker. After speaking for two days on story structure and how to create emotional resonance using the three act structure, he turned things around on Sunday, challenging us to see how the hero’s journey applied in our own lives. As writers we know that if a character has a cannot-face fear, then we must force them to face it. Michael asked us if there was anything that gave us an immediate gut reaction of fear, and then asked us to come up with a way to challenge that fear.

I discovered that just the thought of putting my work in front of any of the experts at conference gave me that immediate gut twisting fear reaction. Why should that be? After all, even then I had two stories published with NineStar Press, and three stories published through the M/M Romance group. I was used to getting feedback positive and negative through Goodreads and Amazon. Why would this scare me so much?

I think it’s because the M/M Community has been a really supportive group for me. I knew the staff I worked with at NineStar before I submitted my work to them, and I know that my audience shares a lot of my beliefs and attitudes. Basically, the M/M romance reading audience is my safe place.

Once you go beyond that, however, it’s totally unknown territory. And I think that’s what is making pitching to the agents and editors so scary.

What’s really interesting though is how this fear has played out. I’m scared of pitching to agents and editors because they might criticize my work. So my brain has been concentrating and stressing about the small stuff. This means that I haven’t been able to work on pitches for two of the three editors/agents that I made appointments with. ‘Never mind!’ my brain consoles me. ‘You can just cancel them. It’d be terrible to turn up unprepared after all.’ I think this was my brain’s subconscious plan after all. If I cancel the appointments, I’m protected from criticism because I ‘didn’t have time to prepare.’ Which is really insidious, and a great example of the sort of self-sabotage we’re capable of—and further proof that I’m on the right track. I don’t know whether I will have time to work on the last two pitches as I’ve just got one day before conference starts, but I’m going to keep those appointments, even if it’s just to ask questions about what they’re looking for.

Marlborough Book Festival #2: C.K.Stead owns his laurels

C.K. Stead is many things—poet, novelist, writer of short stories, New Zealand’s current poet laureate, academic and critic. Before the Marlborough Book Festival I knew him primarily as a critic, connected through his poetry to some of the iconic New Zealand writers—Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame especially, though he’s also the foremost expert on Katherine Mansfield. I know that I read Stead’s writing on Mansfield as an undergraduate studying New Zealand literature, but not having any interest in poetry, I didn’t exactly go looking for his work.

Until the opening session of the festival, An Evening with C.K. Stead, I had no idea that he’d written fiction. The fact that in his career he has spanned so many different kinds of writing just astonished me. When we got the chance to ask questions at the end, I asked him why he placed the most importance on his poetry. He said that poetry is the most difficult form of writing because there are so many limitations on it in terms of length and form. While short stories and novels allow you a lot of words to tell the story, in a poem, you’re trying to capture a vision you have. Only you will know if you’ve succeeded. It’s very difficult to get it right, but when you do the reward is even greater.

This literally made me view poetry in an entirely new light. I’ve always thought of myself as a story teller, and poetry as something totally removed from the type of writing I want to do. But imposing a limit on yourself, forcing yourself to really sharpen your writing, pay attention to vocabulary choice and make every word count… That’s what fiction writers do with drabbles.

One of my biggest writing bad habits is my verbosity. I’m pretty much a Victorian novelist about a century and a half too late to the party, producing 120,000 word drafts with lumbering plots and overly complicated plots. (Think I’m exaggerating? The book that is now Life After Humanity has been separated into three separate novel-length stories.)

C.K.Stead didn’t just make me interested in poetry, he made me want to try it. I came away from the festival inspired to try writing something each day—whether a drabble or a poem, something that would work on my craft. I’ve only done this once, but here it is:

 

Frost makes a watercolour countryside,

the field a washed-out green,

faded grass on smooth plains.

Deeper colour at the edges,

where the earth is crinkled.

 

The other thing that really impressed me about Stead was his confidence in his work. He’s eighty-five years old, and has been writing in one form or another most of his adult life. When he speaks about his work, he’s really frank. He says when he reads his old work, some of it is terrible, some of it didn’t work, but occasionally he finds something that he thinks is rather special.

I consider myself a beginner writer, and I think the majority of my writing friends are in the same boat. We suffer frequent self-doubt, second-guess ourselves and our writing, and find it really hard to judge the quality of what we write. C.K. Stead’s confidence was really refreshing to me—as inspiring as anything he shared about his writing.

 

 

Marlborough Book Festival #1: Navigating a Writer’s Life with Joy Cowley

Last week I hopped on the bus up to Blenheim for the Marlborough Book Festival, something I’ve wanted to do for years. Marlborough is known for its sunny climate which makes it ideal for vineyards. The area produces some of NZ’s best wine (and I’m not just saying that because my wine-maker uncle lives there!). What goes better with wine than a good book?

I’m not entirely sure how the Book Festival came about, but my librarian Aunt and cousins have been involved with the festival since the start. 2017 was the festival’s fourth year. While this year was the biggest so far, the festival has a really fun, friendly atmosphere. The interviews feel more like conversations and the format allows for lots of questions from the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and really recommend it for fellow kiwis!

Unfortunately, I arrived in Blenheim with a really vicious cold. I was planning to do some sight-seeing around the festival, but I only managed enough energy to go to four festival sessions. There were a lot of naps. It’s only now that I’m starting to feel better that I realise just how sick I was, and I’m impressed I made it to the festival at all! Huge thanks to my cousin and her partner for taking such good care of me.

All of the sessions I went to were highlights for me, but I’m starting with Joy Cowley because she’s the one that keeps coming up in conversation. She needs no introduction to New Zealanders, but for everyone else, she’s best-known as a children’s author, but has written short stories and novels.

Rather than focusing on any one book, the interview with Joy ranged over her entire life, because almost every part of her life has impacted her writing. She’s a firm believer that everyone has a path and says that while at times we may feel directionless and like we don’t know where we’re going, it’s possible to look back and see a direct line to where we needed to be. She’s in her seventies, and I really appreciated hearing from an author at the peak of career—although she’d argue its still an apprenticeship.

Another thing that really stood out for me is that Joy gets up at four AM every morning and writes until eight AM. It’s pretty standard advice for authors to get up early, but I imagined that once you’ve ‘made it’ like Joy has, you would get to sleep in! She works hard, but she obviously finds the work rewarding, and that in itself is inspiring.

I borrowed a copy of Navigation, Joy’s memoir, from my Aunt to read after the festival, and her voice is so strong in it, that it was honestly just like hearing her speak. Writing friends, check this out! Yes, she’s traditionally published and her journey is specific to New Zealand, but I think her practical approach and the fact she is looking back over a very varied writing career is a really good antidote to all the negativity, stress and high demands of today’s write to market mentality. Plus, there’s something intrinsically interesting about other writer’s journeys (I haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing yet, so I can’t compare them, but I imagine there’s a similar appeal).

Anyway, most of the author sessions at the Book Festival were an hour long, but Joy requested an hour and a half, because she had a feeling there would be a lot to talk about. She’s a natural story teller, and when the time for questions came, I was disappointed—I just wanted to hear more of her stories! She gave advice to current children’s authors and freely shared where her ideas came from. She’s generous with her advice and time, and I really regret that at the end of the session, I didn’t have the energy to go up and talk to her—though it’s probably best I kept my germs as contained as possible.