Thursday, 30 July 2009

Tools of the trade

We bought a new knife recently. We have a knife block full of knives, but I use the same one all the time, because it’s the most useful length and weight for me. Several years ago it had a rather disastrous trip through the dishwasher, where it fell down on to the element and the heat gouged a contorted scar out of the handle. A kind friend filed it so it would still be comfortable to hold, if a little odd-looking. Earlier this year the two halves of the handle began to separate, so the Carnivore wound stickytape around it. King of the handymen he is not. Still, it worked for a while. Then the stickytape began to unstick from the handle and started sticking to me instead when I held it, at which point I decided it was time for a visit to the knife shop.

Taking the Carnivore to the knife shop is like letting a kid loose in a lolly shop. What is it with men and knives? There must be a Love of All Things Sharp and Pointy gene somewhere in their DNA. All that shiny dangerous steel calls to the caveman inside even the mildest accountant. If only something had been on fire too, he might be there still.

So after I’d talked him down from his steel-induced high and refused to buy the $300 knife, we brought our new knife home. Cooking that night I realised just how blunt the old one had been. The new one sliced through everything so easily it was a joy. It made me conscious again of how much easier jobs are when you have the right tools.

Patchwork, for instance, can be done by drafting blocks on graph paper, making templates, tracing around the templates on the back of every piece of fabric in the quilt, then cutting out with scissors and hand-sewing the pieces together. Which makes you realise why the popular conception of a quilter is a little old lady. It takes that long to make a damn quilt. Thankfully, these days you can buy a rotary cutter and cutting mat, cut out everything more accurately and about ten times faster, and sew it together with a sewing machine. I’m all about instant gratification, so no prizes for guessing which is my preferred method.

So then I started to wonder – what are a writer’s tools? What are the essentials that no writer should be without?

A computer is the most obvious one, of course. Yes, it is possible to write a novel without one. Books were handwritten for centuries, just as quilts were made the traditional way. And I’m sure most writers started off handwriting stories before they were old enough to learn to type. But these days you’d have to look far to find an adult writer who doesn’t use a computer. Quite apart from the fact that word processing programs make it easier, most agents and publishers now expect novels to be available electronically. Why employ a typesetter to type the novel out when the author’s already done so?

Then there are the fancy software programs specifically aimed at writers. They can do just about everything except write the novel. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Scrivener for Macs, which seems to be the holy grail of these kind of programs. yWriter, a free program written by author Simon Haynes, sounds similar and one day I’ll check it out. But exploring all the cool features and learning to use it properly would see me sucked into the Bog of Procrastination again, so I’ll stick with Word and my notebook for now. Fancy software would be nice, but it’s not essential.

What else? How-to books? I have a squillion and I love them, good ones and not-so-good ones. Nice to have a couple in the toolbox, but you couldn’t call them essential either.

Then there’s the internet, a great place to get writing advice. So many articles and workshops out there, much of it free. Bucketloads of tips from the experts! You can also “meet” other writers online, share stories from the frontline, even find a crit group. The trouble is that the internet can morph from Writer’s Best Friend to Procrastination Central in the blink of an eyelid. Blink! There goes two hours. Blink, blink! My God, is it time to cook dinner already? Essential tool or bane of existence? “Essential tool” is not looking good.

So maybe a real-life crit group would be a better tool than the internet one? Writers are divided on the subject. Some swear by them, others avoid them like the plague (or like cliches like that one). My writers’ group is a nice bunch, who offer helpful criticism without nastiness. But I can see the potentials for disaster inherent in the idea. And with so many writers working without a crit group or partner, it’s hard to make a case for one being essential.

So far the only essential tool I have on my list is a computer. Pretty short list! What about caffeine, I hear you cry? I’m not so much into coffee, but if I can get my hit from chocolate instead, I’m perfectly willing to declare caffeine an essential part of the writer’s toolkit.

Which brings me to the bath. You don’t see the connection? Then you have never lazed in the bath eating chocolate and drinking tea and had the perfect solution for your latest plot problem fall into your damp lap straight from heaven. It has happened to me several times. While my body is doing wrinkled prune imitations, my mind ambles off and uncovers all sorts of gems lurking in my subconscious. So I’d have to say the bath was an essential writing tool, at least for me. Though if you’re more of a shower person, that can work too. I just zone out better in the tub.

So, my list of essential writing tools:

- computer
- chocolate
- bath
- knife

Knife?? Yes, that’s the other thing I discovered, while chopping carrots with my new sharp knife. Though it doesn’t have to be a knife, it could be a paintbrush or a vacuum cleaner or a hammer. Anything that allows you to perform a mindless, repetitive task. Somewhere in the middle of admiring how easily my new knife laid waste to those carrots, my mind wandered off and left my hands to it, and the answer to a particularly thorny plot problem appeared from nowhere. Which makes my knife a writing tool, as far as I'm concerned!

So that’s my writer’s toolkit. What’s in yours?

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Dream a little dream

The Carnivore has this amazingly useful trick. He goes to bed thinking about a work-related problem and during the night dreams the solution. Of course this means that not only does he do boring accounting stuff in his waking hours, but he’s still doing it when he’s asleep. If it were me I think I’d rather stab myself in the eye with a fork, but hey, to each his own. And you’ve got to admit, it’s a very handy trick.

I am insanely jealous. I’ve tried and tried, but it never works for me. Wouldn’t it be cool to untangle the knots of the latest WIP in your sleep? So easy! But no, my unco-operative brain insists on dreaming about public toilets. Night after night, my search for a toilet is foiled. They have no doors, or people are holding parties in them, or …

What’s that you say? You’d rather dream about accounting?

Sigh. It would be nice if we could choose our dreams, wouldn’t it? I used to have interesting dreams. Nowadays my subconscious seems too focused on the messages from my ageing bladder. I don’t know what it was focused on in the days of my T-rex dreams. Probably just the general terror of being responsible for the lives and wellbeing of a number of small people.

I haven’t had it for a couple of years now, but I used to have this recurring dream where there was a tyrannosaurus rex in the backyard. Details changed from dream to dream. Sometimes I was trying to call our stupid dog inside. She was busy barking and ignored me (very realistic dream!) and got eaten. Other times I was already inside when the dinosaur appeared. The crux of every dream was my desperate search for a room in the house where the T-rex wouldn’t be able to see me through the windows and attack.

So I usually ended up locked in the pantry.

The ducklings have heard me describe this dream many times, usually while wearing identical “Good Lord, our mother is a fruitcake” expressions.

Today Demon Duck was describing a dream she had last night. I’ve mentioned before that she and I have very similar senses of humour. We got a lot of giggles out of this one. In her dream she was being eaten by a T-rex.

“You idiot,” I said. “You should have hidden in the pantry!”

Monday, 13 July 2009

We interrupt this program

… to bring you a public service announcement. Jacqui Robbins has offered an amusing challenge on her blog: to write the worst possible first sentence for a children’s picture book ever. Is good! Is funny! … is nearly over!

Entries close on the 15th, so I have been slack in not telling you before this. Hop on over and join in the fun. Some of the entries so far require a strong stomach. I’ve had a couple of attempts myself, but I fear I shall never make it as a picture book writer – too wordy. Witness one of my efforts:

"Maybe the smell should have warned him, or the way Tricky Tim sniggered as he held out the bowl, but Greedy Gordon never said no to chocolate ice cream and by the time he realised what he really had in his mouth it was too late."

Jacqui, however, already is a picture book writer, so her sentences are much better, eg:

"Fuzzy the Bunny lived with his Mama Bunny, Papa Bunny, and his sister, Roadkill, in a hutch at the base of a tall oak tree."

Jacqui's new book, Two of a Kind, has just come out, and promises to be full of all sorts of authorial genius. I bet it is even good for you.

And speaking of good for you, I bought a loaf of packaged herb bread to have with dinner tonight. As I prepared to put it in the oven, I noticed the advertising on the pack loudly trumpeted that it was “suitable for vegetarians”.

You know, unlike all those other loaves of bread that are made of meat.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Shameless self-congratulations AKA Writing Progress

Lookee! My little wordcount widget – the numbers, they are going up again! I’ve written about 4,000 words since I set my new goal. Can you tell I’m pleased with myself? The goal itself changed from “write 500 words every school day” to “be happy with whatever amount you manage to get done instead of feeling guilty because it wasn’t more”. Funnily enough, it still came out at an average of 500 words a day – but the process was much less painful.

Plus I got lots of practice at not guilting, which has got to be a good thing, since my “feel guilty about everything” gene is almost as well-developed as my worrywart gene. Witness the following exchange:

Guilt Complex: Oh Noooes! We’ve only written 286 words today. We are a Failure! We will never get this book finished. Never get published. We will be lying on our deathbed one day saying “if only we had tried harder we could have Achieved Something”. And we promised on our blog to write 500 words a day! Public humiliation!! Death and catastrophe!!!

New Improved Me: Begone, evil spawn of Satan! I refuse to listen to you any more. Tra la la! See? That’s me not listening. So what if I only had time for 286 words? At least I wrote something. I’m enjoying this book again! And ideas are starting to come! All is sunshine and roses!!! And tomorrow is another day, tra la la.

It’s true, ideas are starting to flow. I don’t know if they’ve been lurking in my subconscious all this time I’ve been avoiding the book, but they’re popping up all over the place since I poked a cautious toe into the dark waters of The Novel. Some of them are even good.

I had the most gob-smackingly brilliant one (ahem, even if I do say so myself) last night while I was cooking dinner. That pivotal moment in the finale of the book? The one covered in my sad excuse of an outline by the extremely useful sentence “SOME HUGE COMPLICATION NEEDED HERE”?

I thought of it. And it is brilliant. Totally worth waiting for. Sigh.

Gee, I’m just full of smug today, aren’t I? If you feel the need to go away and barf somewhere, go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back so soon? Let me just squee over one more thing, and then I’ll stop. Promise.

I killed someone!! Not a real someone, I hasten to add. That wouldn’t be squee-worthy. A character in my book. Since I am such a scaredy-cat, I couldn’t face leaping off into the unknown of the last quarter of the book. So I went back to a scene I had previously skipped over. It was a necessary scene, but at the time I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for it, so I just wrote “K tries to kill A and fails. She and G are captured” and moved on. Faced with the idea-less void of the rest of the book, however, even that much guidance made writing that part an easier choice to ease my way back into the book.

I was plodding through it, busily getting this secondary character out of the way for the big fight, so he’d be free to come back and rescue my heroine from captivity later, when it occurred to me that it would be much better if the heroine rescued herself and gee, wouldn’t it be fun to actually kill this guy instead. Immediately that scene became much more attractive to write, plus the implications for the rest of the plot started bouncing around, sparking new ideas left, right and centre. I may even become a mass-murderer, I enjoyed it so much.

But you know what the best thing about my new writing goal is? It’s made me remember that writing is fun. Take that, guilt complex!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

"Should" is a dirty word

Yesterday was my blog’s first birthday. Way to go, little fella! Can’t believe you made it!

When I told the ducklings it was my blog’s birthday, Baby Duck asked, “What’s a blob’s birthday, Mama?” He couldn’t understand why his sisters cracked up. That child is just made of cute.

I hesitated for a long time before starting this blog. I was afraid that I’d lose interest and it would go the way of so many – initial posts full of enthusiasm, gradually petering out into silence. But I cleverly got around that problem by being a slack poster from the beginning. Such forethought!

I wondered if I could think of enough things to write about. Fortunately I have the ducklings to help there – they provide plenty of inspiration with their funny ways.

I used to be a mad keen scrapbooker. For a few years there our lives were obsessively documented. The ducklings couldn’t sneeze without me shoving a camera in their face to capture the moment forever. These days I’ve gone back to quilting and writing, but at least if scrapbooking gains the ascendancy again I’ll have plenty of readymade journalling from the ducklings’ bloggy exploits.

Not that those exploits have been comprehensively covered by any means. I remember one of my goals at the beginning of the year was to blog twice a week, and that certainly hasn’t happened. No one could accuse me of being a speed demon.

I’d like to blog more. I feel I should blog more, though it’s just something I do for fun. Why do I feel like that? Life seems full of worthwhile things that it should be easy to fit in, like brush your teeth for three minutes, exercise at least 20 minutes every day, wipe down the shower and sink after your morning shower so it’s not such a big job later. Yet if you added up all these “just a few minutes” activities you’d need about 40 hours in every day. And so we all seem to run around, perpetually behind where we think we should be up to, doomed to feeling like slackers forever.

I set some writing goals in January. Assessing my progress so far, I can see it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I haven’t gone back to the revision of Man Bites Dog, and I certainly haven’t completed the first draft of Dragonheart. I have written more short stories and even submitted two. Yes, a whole two. Please try to contain your excitement.

I was also hoping to establish a daily writing routine. It wasn’t going too badly till personal things reared up and threw my concentration into disarray. Still struggling with that one, but hoping for improvement soon.

Note that I cleverly didn’t include “participate in Nano 2009” as a goal. Much as I love Nano, I’m starting to think another Nano this year might be a bad idea. I can see a classic “non-finishing” pattern emerging: Nano 2007, start first draft of Man Bites Dog, but don’t have time to revise and complete before – Nano 2008, start first draft of Dragonheart, but don’t have time to revise and complete before – Nano 2009, start first draft etc, etc. You get the picture.

I blame my three-second attention span. My life is filled to bursting with unfinished projects, and it drives me nuts. Three seconds? Who am I kidding? That’s waaaay too generous.

One of my non-writing goals was to declutter the house, but I think first I need to declutter myself. All this incompleteness is weighing me down. I wish I could get a working attention span. Would anyone care to swap? Mine’s quite cute, so tiny and decorative. I need a big honking industrial-strength model to get through all the stuff I’ve left hanging over the years.

In recent years I’ve even had trouble finishing reading books, let alone writing them. There’s been a pile of half-read books on my coffee table for over a year, often as many as a dozen books high, all with bookmarks shoved into them. One had been there so long that when I removed the bookmark I discovered it had changed colour. The part inside the book was still dark green, but the part sticking out had been bleached by the sun for so long the shade was half its former strength.

For months I’d looked at that stack of books, thought, Nah, don’t feel like reading any of those, and gone and started another one. Sometimes I finished them. Often they just joined the growing pile. When the guilt got too much, or the pile threatened to topple over, I might finish one, but it never made much difference. The pile had almost achieved sentience, it had been there so long.

I knew I didn’t want to read them, but I couldn’t bring myself to give up and put them away. They were unfinished projects, clogging my mental to-do list, depressing me every time I saw them. Just one more thing I knew I should do.

I know a mother’s work is never done. Jobs waiting to be done everywhere you look is pretty normal in most people’s lives, I guess. But how silly is it to let your leisure activities become a burden of guilt, to see the books you read, supposedly for enjoyment, as a chore hanging over your head?

So I finally took my attention span aside and gave it a good talking to, woman to woman.

“Admit it,” I said, “you are never going to finish reading those books.”

“I might,” it whined, giving me those big puppy-dog eyes. “At one stage I really wanted to read them, and you never know when that feeling might come back. Could be any millenium now.”

“Don’t give me that crap. Look at this one – the bookmark has changed colour, it’s been there so long! And what about this one? You can’t even remember what the book is about any more. You’d have to go back and start at the beginning anyway!”

“But I really enjoyed the first one in that trilogy. I’m sure I’ll get into again if I just … Hey, look over there!”

“What? Over where?”

“There! Look – new! Shiny!”

And that was about it for my attention span. But I refused to admit defeat. Time to bite the bullet, turn over a new leaf, take the first step on the long road to Organised Me. Or at least Slightly Less Maddening Me. Time to wean myself away from should.

So I did it. I took all the bookmarks out of those books. Oh, the pain! Then I lumped those suckers downstairs and banished them to the bookshelves, never to be guilted over again. And it was ridiculous, what a feeling of release such a tiny act gave me.

So, we’re trying, me and the teeny tiny attention span. Trying to let go of so many shoulds, to make more time for the ones that really matter. Trying to make easier goals. My new writing goal is to write only 500 words a day on school days, instead of 1,000. Yeah, I should be able to write 1,000 words in a day, but so often I don’t and then I feel all hopeless and disappointed with myself. So time to be kinder and more understanding of the teeny tiny attention span.

I doubt we will ever metamorphose into a frequent blogger, the attention span and I, but then, I’ve decided that “should” is a dirty word. And I never thought I’d be wishing you happy birthday, dear blog, so you never know.

Many happy returns.