Time To Write? I’ll Just Check My Schedule

Since I started blogging again, my thoughts have turned to how to find the time in my busy life in which to write. You know, in between all those other things that stay-at-home parents do, like watching Dr Phil (*see my previous blog post) and painting miniature daffodils onto our fingernails. As luck would have it, I was hard at work scrolling through my Twitter feed recently (follow me at _nataliaclara) when I came across a tweet with a link to a fantastic article on how to schedule writing time into your busy modern lifestyle. The premise of the article was that you divide up your waking hours into half hour-long blocks, fill in the “non-negotiable” activities – such as showering and eating, presumably – and then use all the blank spaces to schedule in your “desirable” activities. You know, learning Japanese, kayaking, rescuing abandoned puppies, that sort of thing.

Game to give anything a go as long as it involves spreadsheets and NOT ACTUALLY WRITING, I drew up my own weekly schedule. My day starts at 5am, when my littlest angel, Squeaky, wakes for a feed before resettling for another hour or two of sleep. 5.30am to 6am is reserved for knocking back as many coffees as I can before his elder sister, Bubba, wakes up. My personal best currently stands at seventeen. 6am to 8.30am is largely taken up with the usual morning tasks, including (but not limited to) making, serving, and tidying up after breakfast, packing a bag for the day if we plan to go out, discovering and removing a piece of toast from between the couch cushions, and chasing Bubba around the house in an attempt to get her dressed. Which, most mornings, is like trying to put a straightjacket on an octopus. So far, so ordinary.

I'll get around to writing just as soon as I've tidied up.

I’ll get around to writing just as soon as I’ve tidied up.

But as I progressed through my day, the waters became muddied. I mean, was I supposed to include everything I do as a parent of two littlies? Every bottle feed, every nappy change, every time I spend twenty minutes sponging projectile vomit out of the rug? The problem with parenting babies and young children is that so much of what we do is so mundane and repetitive (sorry) that it barely deserves a mention – that is, until we actually sit down and analyse our day, wondering where all the time goes. “What do you do all day?” is a phrase stay-at-home parents hear far too often. Well, gee, when you put it like that, not much, I guess. I picked peanut butter out of my kid’s ear and put all the crayons back in the box for the umpteenth time. Oh and, you know, I ate a sandwich while wandering about the house looking for the remote control (if you’re wondering, it was in the pot plant. For some reason, the remote control is always in the pot plant). I didn’t find the time to rebalance my share portfolio, or train for that fun run I stupidly signed up to three months ago, or write. So, yeah, not much.

But back to those blank spaces in my schedule. Um, what blank spaces? For, while my day begins at the bum crack of dawn when Squeaky’s sweet, melodic chirrup gently awakens me from my slumber, it also ends at around 8pm when I fall asleep in front of My Kitchen Rules. Yes, you read right. My day ends an hour after the cherubs have been put to bed. Not are asleep, mind you. Which is why 7pm to 7.30pm on my schedule is reserved for Sitting Out The Back With My Husband, Inhaling Wine And Pretending We Can’t Hear Our Children Screaming. I mean Self-Settling.

This guy. Partly to blame for my embarrassingly early bedtime.

This guy. Partly to blame for my embarrassingly early bedtime.

All right, I tell a lie. I found one blank space on my schedule. One break in my week when I am not getting the kids fed/dressed/undressed/bathed/into or out of bed, doing household chores, ferrying the kids to swimming or dance class, or checking my Facebook feed. Which is a legitimate thing if you’re a writer, so don’t start on me. That hour (or two, if I’m experiencing a lucky break) rolls around every Wednesday afternoon, when Bubba is at daycare and Squeaky is (hopefully) having his afternoon nap. I’ve motored through the day’s chores during his morning nap, you see, and now find myself with the delicious prospect of nothing to do except make myself a cup of tea, power up my laptop, and write. Bliss. Er, yeah, except not. Because last week Squeaky decided not to nap at all in the afternoon. And the week before that, I spent this precious hour not writing, not thinking about writing, not even Tweeting about how much writing I wasn’t doing. Instead, I wasted the only hour to myself I get every week updating the kids’ baby books. For those of you without kids, baby books are those delightful albums in which parents lovingly inscribe every momentous occasion in their offspring’s early years, accompanied by meaningful and not at all out of focus photographs. Which was all very well with my first child. Bubba’s book is nearly complete. Every time she burped, or did some other very clever thing no other baby in the history of humanity had ever done, I would whip out the baby book and fill in the relevant section. With the date and time and everything. Unfortunately, once your second kid comes along, your priorities change. Now, when Squeaky burps, I’m more worried about removing half-digested mango from the couch, the floor, our clothes, and the dog. So, when I pulled out his baby book the other day, I was dismayed to find that it was nearly bare, hence the hour spent gluing in out of focus photos and making up the dates of when he first did stuff, because frankly I couldn’t remember.

Anyway, my point is, I had an hour to myself, and I didn’t spend it doing what I felt I should have been doing. I didn’t spend it doing anything remotely writerly at all. Because, if I’m honest, it was nice to switch off and do something absorbing, but that didn’t require me to think a great deal. Which, if you’re a parent, you’ll agree can be quite nice.

Since then, I have ditched my weekly schedule and instead found the perfect solution to my lack of writing time woes. This blog post was composed nearly word for word in my head over the space of two days while I did other tasks that didn’t require a great deal of brainpower. Such as chopping fruit for the kids’ breakfast, shopping, having a conversation with the hubby (only joking, dear). Then it was a simple matter of typing it all up as quickly as possible in one of those rare, sacred moments when Both Kids Were Napping At The Same Time. For the foreseeable future, I think that’s how all my writing will have to occur. So, if you bump into me at the shops and I’m wandering around with a vacant look on my face, or you’re telling me about your day and I’m nodding vaguely and saying “I totally agree” at the wrong moment, you’ll know that I haven’t lost the plot, I’m just hard at work creating literary magic. Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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Back On The Blog

Hi everyone! Yoohoo! *Waves madly with both arms while onlookers surreptitiously bow their heads or pretend to focus their attention on something desperately interesting on the horizon. I’m back! You can all breathe a collective sigh of relief in the knowledge that, nine months after signing off from this blog to succumb to another bout of babyitis, I have returned to the land of the mentally capable and am ready to focus (some of) my attention back on my writing blog. With a freshly minted two-year-old in the house, not to mention a nine-month-old who only wakes once, or three times, during the night, what better time is there to limber up my neglected writing muscles by diving back into the bog? I mean log. I mean, er… did someone say Giggle and Hoot?

I have come to realise over the past nine months that there is no, and never will be a, perfect time in which to start writing again. Newborn feeding every two hours? I’d be lucky to put on clean clothes in the morning and avoid getting the coffee beans and dog food pellets mixed up. Hubby was not impressed by his freshly ground cup of dog food in the morning, but it turns out that the dog is quite partial to Arabica. Chubby bubby starting to crawl? I’m far too busy installing baby gates and a laser tripwire alarm system to even think about writing. Toddler making constant, conflicting demands, then having a meltdown when these are not met and doing something akin to breakdancing on the kitchen floor? Excuse me while I slip away into the garage and bang my head against the beer fridge. And it won’t get any easier as the little tikes grow older. Kids at school all day, every day? I do believe there is an unfinished bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in my fridge. Relax, relax. I’m joking. There is never an unfinished bottle of Sauvignon Blanc anywhere in my house.

Look what I made! (Photo courtesy of Annelie Hansen Photography)

So, having come to the realisation that not only is there never a perfect time to embark on any venture, and, therefore, that this is as good a time as any to do so, I am also acutely aware that there are many, many writers out there blogging about writing and motherhood. And the vast majority of them are far more talented (and probably a bit less lazy) than I am. But you know what? There are also plenty of sensitively made, finely acted television shows being produced, but that hasn’t stopped them from commissioning another series of “I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!”, has it?

I’m not getting ahead of myself, though. Oh, no. For however long I will continue to wake up in the middle of the night with the Wiggles’ classic “Fruit Salad (Yummy Yummy)” playing on a loop in my head, I will NOT be attempting to write a best-selling novel. Or prize-winning short story. Or semi-comprehensible snippet of flash fiction. Nep. But I do figure that by getting back into a regular* blogging routine (*and by regular, I mean sporadic) I may at least sharpen the writing side of my brain and just get a general sense of being back in the game. Because you have to be in it to win it. Or even to get a tick on your attendance record. Which is what life’s all about, really. Here lies Joe Author. His writing wasn’t much cop, but at least he showed up. After all, nothing comes to those who sit on the couch all day eating Cheezels and watching Dr Phil. Except perhaps Centrelink benefits. And heart disease.

So, while I’m still knee deep in nappies and Peppa Pig branded products (seriously, is there any item in this world you can’t buy with Peppa’s snout emblazoned across it?), I’m also powering up my laptop and giving it a fair go. I don’t promise that my blog posts will be informative or entertaining, or that I won’t forget to post my next blog entry because I’ve been too busy picking play dough crumbs out of the carpet, but anyway, here I am, back on the blog. Run good people, run while you still can!

Taking a Baby Break – Back Soon!

This will be my last blog post for a while, as very soon I will be going on maternity leave to welcome my second child, Squeaky, into the world. It is only ten months since I came back to work following the birth of my daughter Bubba, ten short months in which I have put a lifelong ambition into practice and become a writer, and yet what a lot has happened in those ten short months!

In ten months I have published a collection of six of my short stories, Mothering and Other Stories, which quickly became an Amazon #10 bestseller* and is available now to download from the Amazon online store. The collection’s title story, Mothering, won first prize in the Darker Times Short Story Competition in October of last year, which was not only an unexpected thrill, but gave a fledgling author such as myself a much-needed boost of confidence.

I attended my first Perth Writers’ Festival in February, and fell in love all over again with writing and reading. I was also delighted to discover that, for a “big country town”, Perth has a vibrant writing scene and some incredibly talented authors. Following on from the festival, I signed up to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 and have to date read five and reviewed three of the six books by Australian female authors I pledged to read and review upon joining the challenge. I look forward to (hopefully) reading more than the six books over the rest of the year, baby- and toddler-permitting, of course.

Leaping headfirst onto the social media bandwagon, I started a blog about writing, which has enabled me to practise writing non-fiction in the form of the commentaries, musings, and book reviews you will find on this site. I also created a website, joined Twitter, and yes, I got myself the ubiquitous Facebook page.

I hope to be back behind my desk before the year is out, however for the next six months or so I will be concentrating all my time and energy into just being Mum. I look forward to catching up with you all soon. Signing off for now,

Natalia Clara14.05.01 On Mat Leave

 

 

* #6 in Amazon Bestsellers Rank in Category: Short Stories on 21 April 2014

Review: “The Idea of Perfection” by Kate Grenville – Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

14.04.23 Idea of Perfection coverWinner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2001 (now the Baileys Women’s Prize), The Idea of Perfection is in fact a novel about human (and architectural) imperfection in its many guises. The book’s two central characters are about as removed from the idea of perfection as you could imagine. Douglas Cheeseman is a jug-eared, socially inept bridge engineer who suffers from debilitating vertigo, while Harley Savage is a “big rawboned” museum textiles consultant recovering from a heart attack and three failed marriages. As such, they make for improbable romantic leads, and yet the novel centres around the burgeoning romance between this unlikely pair.

Harley and Douglas have come to the tiny backwater town of Karakarook in NSW for very different reasons – Harley to help establish the Karakarook Pioneer Heritage Museum, and Douglas to pull down the old, warped Bent Bridge and erect a modern replacement. The novel is a study of awkwardness so extreme it at times makes for hilarious reading. Early on in the book, Harley rescues Douglas from a herd of inquisitive cows after Douglas’s tactic of being “as boring as possible” fails to make the bovines lose interest in him. Further on, their first date – to the “oily” tea-room at a scenic look-out point – is toe-curling in the extreme.

The people of Karakarook (population 1,374) are themselves as hotch potch a bunch as you could imagine. There is the old shopkeeper who refuses to sell a bucket from the window display, in case a future customer mistakenly believes the shop does not stock that colour. Felicity the bank manager’s wife rations her facial expressions, for fear that smiling too much may give her wrinkles. And Coralie Henderson works in the Cobwebbe Crafte Shoppe, which sells padded satin coat hangers and crocheted glasses cases, and little else. The attention to detail which Grenville exhibits in creating the little world of Karakarook is second to none, and helps to make the setting and its inhabitants believable. We’ve all driven through a Karakarook at one point or another in our lives, perhaps stopping to fill up on fuel and a meat pie, and wondering idly what it might be like to live in such a place.

However, Grenville treads a careful line between making her characters unwittingly comical, and allowing them to descend into caricature. As with the best comedy, in amongst the humour lies a seam of tragedy, and it is the suffering the characters have endured in their previous lives which helps to make them well-rounded and plausible. Both Harley’s and Douglas’s past misfortunes are revealed to us through candid inner monologues, which help the characters avoid becoming merely objects of our ridicule.

The Idea of Perfection is an engaging, poignant, and funny novel, and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. I may only recently have discovered Kate Grenville‘s work, but I will be keen to read more of her.

“Mothering and Other Stories” Has Now Been Published!

I am thrilled to announce that my first short story collection, Mothering and Other Stories, is now available as an e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store.

Cover_1_Mothering_largeFeaturing Mothering, winner of the Darker Times Short Story Competition, as well as five previously unpublished tales, Mothering and Other Stories introduces the reader to a universe not quite our own, and where anything is possible.

A woman joins a sinister mothers’ group where all is not as it seems. Mysterious twins promise to deliver all that your heart desires. Two boys encounter an inexplicable force of nature in the Australian bush. A woman bids farewell to her husband, but what secret is she carrying? A mother’s love for her infant daughter threatens to derail her relationship with her husband. A hapless magician must learn the ropes – and cards, and wand – fast. In this collection of strange and spooky stories, nothing is quite as it initially seems, and nobody is who they appear to be.

I hope that you will enjoy reading the stories in this collection. I value and look forward to receiving all feedback. Happy reading!

 

Building Castles: My 3 Rules For Writing

I recently came across the following quote from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” I find it reassuring that such a prolific writer, with twenty novels and hundreds of essays, short stories, travel books and other works to his name, should have confessed to struggling to define the magical formula for writerly success, despite his achievements in this field.

When I write, I try not to think of the rules. All writers know the basic ones. Plot. Character. Convincing dialogue. Yes, yes, yes. But, once we feel confident of having mastered these basics, what do we do with them? How do we transform the enormous, perfectly formed but almost indefinable idea for a book which is in our head into a coherent narrative, and maintain it over tens of thousands of words? In his excellent book On Writing, Stephen King likens the unwritten story to a fossil which the author must slowly and gently tease from the soil’s grasp, brushstroke by agonising brushstroke. But even King admits to not fully understanding what makes good fiction work, including his own.

If I were to pick my own three rules for writing, based upon personal experience – and assuming that the usual rules involving plot, character and other technical matters have been taken as understood – they would be the following:

1. Just Get On With It
14.04.08 Ray BradburyDay-dreaming about writing, and talking about writing, are not writing. Yes, getting those initial words on paper can be excruciating. You may struggle to form basic sentences, or you may go off on a 5000-word tangent which, while great jinks at the time, does not advance the narrative of your novel one iota. And yes, some of the stuff you read back to yourself will be cringeworthily bad. But that doesn’t matter. Truly. As American author Shannon Hale puts it in one of my all-time favourite writing quotes, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

It is reassuring to remember that while you are in the process of getting the tumult of ideas down onto paper or screen during the first draft process, it is okay to write bad prose, as long as you are writing something. It is far easier to edit a whole lot of mangled writing than it is to edit nothing at all, because you spent three hours trying to find the perfect word for ‘nice’. Just put down nice and move on. There will be plenty of time for theasaurus-browsing later on, but with nice down on paper you will be halfway towards success. And success, as we all know, means Getting The Job Done. Because while there are plenty of fairly average books out there in print, no publisher is going to be interested in a half-finished novel, no matter how felicitous, copacetic, or pulchritudinous it may be.

2. Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Don’t promise yourself that you will finish your novel in a month, or six months, or even a year. When the deadline rolls around and you’re nowhere near completion, you will feel disheartened. Similarily, don’t go all gung-ho on yourself and commit to putting down14.04.08 Word Count 5000 words a day – not at first, anyway. 5000 words is a lot. Heck, it’s longer than most of the short stories I have written. 1000 words is a perfectly decent amount to get you started, and if you can write 1000 words – be they good, bad or plain ugly – every day, five days a week, in a year you will have 260,000 words. Of course, you probably won’t, because 260,000 words would give you a novel over 800 pages long to edit, and therein madness lies (besides, novels of this length are generally considered by publishers as being comercially unviable). However, it does mean you will have a 65,000 word first draft completed in three months, leaving you the rest of the year to try and shape that sand mound into a castle through subsequent drafting.

14.04.08 ElephantMy own, personal novel writing goal for when I get back to writing following maternity leave will be to write 500 words per day, five days per week. 500 words is nothing, less than half the length of this blog post. It took me half an hour to thump out the first 500 words of the first draft of this post (please bear in mind that polishing that lumpen prose took a lot, lot longer, but worry about the editing later, once the sand has been piled up). And yet, if I write 500 words per day, five days per week, I will have the second draft of my poor, neglected opus completed within six months. Peasy!

Furthermore, since my overall weekly goal is only 2500 words per week, I can easily miss a day and catch up later, without falling short of my overall target and becoming disheartened. Small, realistic goals are much more likely to be achieved consistently, which will give you the confidence to return to the keyboard (or the notepad or the papyrus, or whatever) tomorrow. All music to the ears of this soon-to-be mother of two-under-two.

3. Enter the Zen zone
The Zen zone is where the magic happens – 14.04.08 Zen Frog_cropwhere your characters comes alive and begin to lead you on a journey of their own choosing, rather than you doggedly trying to force them to follow a strict plotline mapped out in your head. The Zen zone is a beautiful, liberating place to write from, and it took me years before I learned to let go of my right-brained, ‘on-the-surface’ writing and allow myself to enter that mysterious place where time appears to stop and I am no longer at my desk, but instead running breathlessly alongside my characters as they take me on unexpected pathways through the stormy narrative of their lives. It is a feeling mildly akin to becoming lost in the reading of a fantastic story, but oh, so much better.

This may seem paradoxical coming after what I wrote above about how torturous spitting those initial words out of your brain onto paper or screen can be. But writing is only hard work when you try to force it (or when you are editing, but that’s a whole other matter). And if everything I’ve written still makes no sense to you, well, never mind. As W. Somerset Maugham said, nobody knows the rules. If they did, then we’d have computers writing novels by now. It really is just a matter of planting yourself behind your desk and having the determination to stay there until you have produced a work you are proud of. Which is, ultimately, what the whole gig’s all about.

Review: “Zac & Mia” by A. J. Betts – Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

A. J. Betts’ third Young Adult novel introduces us to gentle, mild-mannered Zac and feisty, irrepressible Mia, teenagers who come from different worlds but are thrown together in hospital as they both undergo treatment for cancer. An adjoining wall separates their rooms, and at first the teenagers can not see each other, only knocking on the wall to communicate. The early days of their friendship are fraught with moments of toe-curling awkwardness, told with an unshrinking honesty which will resonate with any reader who is, or remembers being, a teenager. We follow the characters as they leave hospital and try to assimilate back into their everyday lives, and it is here that the evidence of how fragmented their lives have become – how removed from the banal concerns of their schoolmates – is displayed with heartbreaking clarity.

Betts never shies away from presenting to us the grim realities of life with cancer, nor does she sentimentalise the plight of its sufferers. Instead, we are treated to an insight into the minds of modern day teenagers. The story is told from each teenager’s point of view in turn, and the characters leap from the page through their sharp and witty inner monologues. Zac is the calm one, trying to remain philosophical – almost stoical – about his condition. He comments wryly early on in the novel that “Cancer is a Facebook friend magnet. According to my home page, I’m more popular than ever. In the old days, people would have prayed for each other, now they Like and Comment as if they’re going for a world record.” In contrast, Mia is passionate, angry, full of hate against the world around her for the misfortune which has befallen her. “No more trying my luck with bus drivers or girlfriends or ex-boyfriends or mothers or doctors or random strangers who once stayed in adjoining hospital rooms and fed me bullshit lies. Everyone lies. … Fuck ’em all”, she rants.

Although marketed at young adults, Zac & Mia is so much more than just a novel for (or about) teenagers. The novel captures perfectly the frustration, awkwardness and vulnerability with which teenage lives are fraught during the uneasy transition to adulthood – and then throws into the mix a deadly disease, the effects of which the characters must come to terms with as they try to recapture some normality in their lives. The characters are true to life and easily recognisable to anybody who has ever been searching to find their place in the world. I absolutely took the characters of Zac and Mia into my heart, and didn’t want to let them go when the story ended.

Elegantly written and well paced, this is a book about wanting to fitting in, wanting to break out, finding your place in the world, and learning to trust others when you are at your most vulnerable. Winner of the 2012 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing and currently longlisted for the 2014 Gold Inky Awards, Zac & Mia is currently receiving a lot of attention and praise, both of which are richly deserved.

I loved this book, and I defy any reader not to do the same!