A Writer’s Life: What to do when you can’t write

Source Wikimedia Commons

Doh! Frustration

By “can’t write” I mean actually kicking and screaming I can’t write writer’s block, my brain is not working or I am sick so I can’t write. This scenario is very different from the I can’t write because I don’t have time – it’s Christmas, the study is being painted or I’m starting a new job or a relative is sick. These situations are really “I have decided not to write at the moment” although we still lament the fact we can’t write to our friends and family.

In 1987 whilst I was writing my first novel I had to have my appendix out. I was two thirds of the way through the manuscript set in the Wye Valley at a youth hostel for school children. Every week a new lot of school children arrived with several teachers to look after them. Just before my appendectomy this new group were assembled on the doorstep of the beautiful old hostel (a former priory) overlooking the Wye river.

I was so excited to get back to the writing after my operation. I actually had a week off work and envisaged getting so much done. I turned on my computer and the blankness was overwhelming. The new group wouldn’t speak to me. It was as if they hadn’t arrived and the rest of the characters weren’t talking either. They were incommunicado. After a few failed attempts at stringing words together, they all just literally packed their bags and left. I was distraught.

I realise now of course that I was suffering some sort of reaction from the anaesthetic. For weeks in bed at night I felt like I was sinking from the head down. I couldn’t concentrate and I definitely couldn’t write. It was so frustrating and a bit worrying. It lasted I think about a month until I found a way out of the haze my brain was in and was able to coax the words back.

The only other time I have experienced the “kicking and screaming I can’t write” was last month and I am only now just getting the words to flow again. What happened? Well, just before my planned holiday to New Zealand, I had a manuscript assessment done by the wonderful novelist Belinda Castles. I received the assessment only days before my cruise and decided that I would tackle it after I got back mid November. I would be renewed and rested and excited. The perfect mindset for a major rewrite. I arrived home on a Wednesday with an awful virus caught from a passenger on board (many at our table were sick) and didn’t have the energy to even open my laptop. I avoided emails for days. Editing was definitely out of the question! For three and a half weeks as it turned out. I have only just begun the rewrite this week and I am finally excited and confident.

What did I do on both occasions to fix the problem? It’s simple and obvious. I read. Well in regards to the assembled school teachers and children I didn’t actually read. To start with I just looked at a book of watercolour sketches of the area of England and Wales where my manuscript was set. I gazed at the beautiful scenes (meadows, woods and streams) and after a day or two managed to read a small amount of text. Soon after I discovered a way back into the manuscript through the landscape that my characters were either living in or visiting.

Last month I reached for the short stories of F Scott Fitzgerald (which I’m still reading) a non fiction book about Sylvia Plath’s month in New York in 1953, a speculative fiction novel and also some short fiction which I devoured. The standout was Andrei Makine’s A Life’s Music. It was so good to read elegant sentences and straightforward plots.

As a writer I marvel at other writers who say they don’t read. How can they learn and improve their own writing if they don’t touch base with how other authors construct sentences, decide on points of view and characterisation and of course evoke a setting? This writer is completely mystified. I frankly don’t think it’s possible and don’t ever intend to try. The only problem I’m faced with in my reading is not finding the time to read but who to read.

At the moment I am very much aware that I need to streamline my manuscript and the books I’ve been reading lately have definitely given me some ideas how to do it. With these new ideas and Belinda’s assessment I am ready to go. Here is what I read November and early December. I wish my readers a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and of course happy reading! My Goodreads bookshelf.

Keeping track of the chapters you’ve written

chaptersHello, I’m back! The mistress of old school. The beauty of this piece of paper is that all the chapters (or most of them) are visible at a glance. Writing programs will obviously show much more but that can be distracting. Along with my notebook and my record of pages written (see previous post) this is actually all the paper I deal with in writing. The rest is on my laptop. Oh and one draft I print out and edit on paper.

I usually keep this record only on my first draft and my last. The chapter list not only helps me keep a track of my chapters but the length of them. Luckily for me I name my chapters and by looking at the list I can see, for instance, that The Casino is 6 1/2 pages and Berry’s Bay is only 4 1/2. I can also look at the flow of the scenes. Generally, for me anyway, a chapter that is a bit short is often a problem chapter and needs more attention. The Winter Garden, for instance, does seem to be a bit short to me when I consider what happens in that chapter and the page count of the others.

Everyone is different in how they write of course but for me this list is too impractical for the next few drafts. My second, third and fourth drafts are the ones where I’m constantly adding or deleting pages. Therefore it would drive me (and most people) mad writing such a record out each time.

For the last draft though, it is very useful. I generally write it out again noting the changes in the chapters and also adding a word count for each chapter which gives me a final manuscript tally. If you don’t already keep such a record you might find it handy! I would love to hear what types of writing records you keep!

 

Charting the progress of your manuscript

progress sheetAs you can see from the above I’m old school! Well, at least as far as keeping a record of my writing progress goes. Paris Next Week is my seventh manuscript. Yes, I love bashing my head against a brick wall! The first three manuscripts I can’t actually remember keeping a record of each page written. I’m pretty sure it all started with Tomaree. I was, by that time (early 2002) becoming more organised and setting goals. The main goal was – a page a day! A page a day is of course a manuscript in a year but as you can see from the very battered piece of paper covering the last three months, I’m only averaging slightly half that. I am, though, happy with my progress.

Of course there are many programs now that a writer can use to chart their progress and keep all their notes organised. I won’t discuss them all here as I don’t use them, lol. Here is my project management tool below:

notebook

It’s a notebook! Yep! In I keep very scattered notes but as I write I generally circle what I need to research further. I keep this with me at all times. When I’m reading research material I often jot notes down quickly. If a line from a character starts reverberating in my head, such as the simple words: “Money follows you.” from the wealthy Lilith, I jot that down too. Any more than a sentence though and I’ll have the laptop out pronto.

The main purpose of this post though is advice that covers all forms of record keeping and that is be generous! It really does help keep you motivated. I found this out by Tomaree and it’s my common practice now. Don’t worry if you’ve only written a few lines (generally you’ll find at the start of a new scene or chapter) put down half a page! If you look closely at the sheet above, you’ll see lots of 1/2 pages. You’ll find too that even being generous when you do a page count, reconciled with what you’ve written, you’ll still be missing a few pages – page breaks of course!

My sheet is very simple. It’s just the date, the title of the chapter and the amount of pages. From above you can see that I wrote 10 1/2 pages this March, only 2 1/2 pages in April, 10 1/2 in May and I have so far written another 10 1/2 this month. April I was on holidays painting doors and architraves in my house and my Mum came to stay. I was also checking over my Darlinghurst research. In May the next chapter required a bit of research in France and I’m currently researching crime scene practices in the 1920s regarding the discovery of a dead body.

By keeping this simple record you can actually see your month by month progress and highlight the months, where perhaps you have fallen behind. If I’m doing a lot of research, I will often note that research on the days I’m not writing. After all, it is progress too! If you don’t keep a record of each page written, give it a try. Don’t forget to record those half pages, keep at your writing and watch the pages mount up!

 

Playing Musical Chairs With Sydney Suburbs

`Greenoaks',_Darling_Point,_1895

Greenoaks, Darling Point 1895. Source: Federation House Wikispaces

I can do this! I’m a novelist! But why? Now that’s a good question but I’d better start at the beginning. As I might have mentioned, I had barely done any research when I began writing my manuscript Paris Next Week last August. I needed two Sydney suburbs fairly close to the inner city so I chose Elizabeth Bay for Louie Galbraith and Darling Point for my main character, Sarah Montague. I actually can’t remember why but with this decision I had put my main character further away from Sydney and all that was happening there.

This wasn’t a problem until I started moving my characters around the city and also became better acquainted with them. It turns out that Louie’s family are richer than the Montagues and she therefore has a more generous allowance than Sarah. She also has a chauffeur at her disposal. Sarah is forced to sometimes catch the tram (poor darling) and often walks to some of her meetings with her best friend. This is a bit of a stretch if she was walking from Darling Point – an hour as opposed to the more realistic thirty minutes from Elizabeth Bay.

Recently I have been investigating the mansions of both suburbs. Libby Watters at the Woollahra Local History Centre has been a wonderful help. With a map and a list of Darling Point mansions she supplied, I have discovered that Darllng Point is the grander suburb, with several outstanding properties such as the fairytale Greenoaks above. It’s one of four spectacular castle like houses in the suburb, including the amazing mansion called The Swifts. I grabbed this for Louie’s home only the other week and with this decision and the chauffeur, I decided to swap the girls’ suburbs. Once I had the extra wealth and the suburb, AND the castle here is the paragraph that came from all the manoeuvring. It is Sarah pondering on Louie’s house I’ve called Eastbourne (The Swifts in disguise) :

“It has crenellations everywhere, ready for battle with little chimneys shaped like turrets and a portico that could shelter a whole wedding party in a thunderstorm.  It is an amazing house masquerading as a castle in Scotland and the magnificence of it has always shadowed Louie in a way. It’s strange that I should only have just realised this but it is what I’ve been thinking since our talk at Darlinghurst.

She loves the house and grounds. I know she does but she also fears what the house represents. I can’t blame her! I’m thankful I don’t live there because I’m sure I would feel the same way and I think that’s why we always played at Highcliffe when we could. Not just because we loved clambering up and down the switchback stairs to the garden. We used to get to the bottom and look up. And although Highcliffe looks the most impressive from that view, it still manages to look friendly rather than imposing. Whereas Eastbourne does imposing AND grand exceedingly well. What daughter could look up to that? And what sort of man does the house call to? The wrong sort of man, I’m sure. The sort that says to himself, “Ah, here is money to burn.””

The suburbs are now aligned and all is right with the world of my characters. At least for the time being!

 

Searching in the past for that indefinable something

Denison Street Darlinghurst

Darlinghurst 1924 from the Demolition Books

I think we’ve all done it as some stage and not especially in the past – spent time looking for something, not knowing what that something is! What exactly am I looking for, we ask ourselves. We stop for a moment, think about it and then begin again none the wiser.

I’m searching in Sydney’s way back past for either an old house that has been turned into a block of flats or perhaps a particular row of terrace houses. I’ve been gazing at photographs of the old villas of Darlinghurst at this wonderful website, My Darlinghurst. I’ve also been looking at certain streets, especially Darlinghurst Road. The City of Sydney Archives are great for that purpose, particularly the demolition books. I stumbled on their existence when I was looking for cafes in 1924. (I still need a small one in Pitt Street.) I will shortly begin searching the 1,866 Darlinghurst images here.  I should surface in a week or so.

My search for the perfect flat for Raye Reynolds my doomed artist is starting to get frustrating but I know what the problem is – I want not just her flat but something of the street as well. Maybe just down the road is the Kings theatre, or a park where she goes sketching or a cafe where she scrapes together the money for a pot of tea. So I know I’m looking for a flat plus something else. I’m hunting for a detail that will help fix the flat in the reader’s mind. Maybe its a massive frangipani tree out the front. Now that’s a thought! Or maybe something else.

I wasn’t sure what that indefinable something was when I was researching the Ambassadors Cafe late last year. See this post. I knew I was spending too much time researching but my writing was stalled. I found out where the cafe was, what it looked like and the band that played there in in early 1924 (the last detail I didn’t even end up using). The very last thing I found out before the scene almost wrote itself was that there were private rooms off the main dining area! Private saloons! I put my six characters in the private room. Even worked out who sat where. There were introductions as a few didn’t know each other. They sat down at the oval table, began to talk and the chapter was away!

Think of me as I disappear in the demolition books. I’m sure I’ll come back with something interesting!

 

I can’t keep up with my characters!

SwainsLast week my two young women, Sarah and Louie, were walking down Pitt Street in Sydney in 1924 way before I was ready for them to even leave their houses! If you look carefully at the image above you will see hashes. Yep that’s where I’m missing information. They are catching trams, going into little cafes for cups of tea, having lunch etc before I’m even organised.

I want to stop right in front of them with my notebook and say, “Excuse me, if you could just tell me which tram you caught this morning. Or even if there is a tram from Elizabeth Bay. I also need the name of the cafe you are going to. How much is a pot of tea in February 1924 would be helpful too. And what’s with this marocain stuff? Why does everybody seem to be wearing it? I mean what does it look like? And do you know, girls, that your dresses are great but your shoes! Don’t get me started on the awfulness of shoes in the Twenties. I will do you both a favour and avoid mentioning them.”

There is so much to hunt down and check. For instance I still don’t have Louie’s last name but there is a suggestion already that her family is wealthier that Sarah’s. Sarah’s father, Henry Montague, works in Pitt Street in finance I think but at this stage I’m not sure what he does exactly.

There’s an interesting Swiss German with a yacht but I have no idea how he is going to make his way into the novel. By boat you are probably thinking to yourself. Tempting but how to work that in. Have Sarah in a dinghy in Rushcutters Bay drifting aimlessly? There is the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia nearby so may be, but another research point to check – was the club there in 1924?

In the scene I am working on now, Sarah and Toby Linden are walking in Hyde Park, enjoying the green shade away from the busy streets of Sydney. But wait…No they are not! After looking for some images of Hyde Park around that time I discovered this:

Hyde Park 1925

Construction of St James Station

Hyde Park was dug up for the new underground railway in 1919 and wasn’t beginning to look like the Hyde Park we know and love until 1926. My characters are determined on a romantic walk (well sort of) and a park must be found. Botanical Gardens? Hold on, I’ll just go and check!

Digging deep into Sydney’s past

Excavation_at_York_Street_northBasement and underground station deep actually! Did you know that under The Strand Arcade was the Ambassador’s Cafe? It was opened in late 1923 and the cafe was in the newspapers off and on throughout 1924 because of the illegal sale of liquor. You can imagine me jumping for joy when I discovered this. In point of fact this last week I’ve been seriously thinking of changing the opening chapter to January 1924 instead of October. Maybe even have my main character Sarah visiting the cafe on that fateful night in February. Just a thought…

At the moment I’ve written only four and half pages. This is the first novel that I have actually started without doing at least several months research beforehand, which is why I’m in a bit of a pickle. Very early on I was planning a garden party to be hosted at Sarah’s house in October with her controlling mother in her element and Sarah dodging as many eligible and boring bachelors as she can. But I’m guessing that not many garden parties in the twenties would have been hosted in the middle of summer. If I go ahead with the change in timeframe to accommodate all those lovely police raids I will have to forfeit the garden party.

I am now stuck wondering what social event the mother could organise in January – if any at all! You see this is just one of the many challenges historical writers face when they are recreating the past as accurately as they can. Challenges surface, more research is needed and then you stumble on an interesting fact that can trigger a scene, an event, even a very important location in the storyline.

I stumbled on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in 2010 and what those women achieved during WWI ended up being a major theme in The Grey Silk Purse. In Paris Next Week, my new manuscript, my theme is the lost generation of the twenties – the frenetic surface glitter of their lives which I believe was a actually a psychological recreation to the great losses of WWI. How I can depict that aspect of history and still create an enjoyable novel is the task I’ve set myself, as well of course as getting to know Sydney in 1924.

It’s early days yet but I already know that Hyde Park was a mess from construction of St James Station so I can’t have Sarah and her beau conducting a romantic walk there. The very famous Australian restauranteur Azzalin Orlando Romano worked at the Ambassador’s cafe before opening his own restaurant. There was a police raid on Maxine’s – a dance hall in 1924 (another scene in Paris Next Week very possibly) and according to Jack Lindsay there was at least one coffee shop called Mockbells but more details are proving elusive. Something called The Blues was the new dance craze and there was a Hungarian cafe in Castlereagh Street. Heady stuff! This is where I long for the Tardis to just nip back to 1924. Oh to scout around and be a fly on the wall! I can only hope to do Sydney in 1924 justice.

Stay tuned.

Coping with the rejection of your manuscript

GallianoYep, that’s what I’m doing. I’m back on the merry-go-round. Just received my first rejection for my current manuscript The Grey Silk Purse. And already resorted to drink! One bourbon and coke down and the Galliano pictured to go! Coping mechanism No. 1. Have a drink. That’s one strategy and being very generous of spirit, although down (but not beaten) I am going to offer some more.

2. Adopt a mantra. I submitted my first piece of writing way back in 1981 but it wasn’t until sometime after 1996 when I watched The Cable Guy and Carey said those marvellous words “Allrightee then!” that I adopted a mantra. I still repeat those eloquent words to myself on being rejected. I find they are very helpful, being such a mix of frustration and, dare I say, bloody-mindedness, that they sum up my feelings exactly and are very soothing.

3. Begin another project. As readers of this blog will know that’s what I’ve already done. I tell you, Paris is looking pretty good at the moment! I’d rather be writing about it than trying to work out where to send my manuscript next. But then maybe that’s why I still haven’t found a mainstream publisher for my novels. I tend to submit a handful of times and then retreat into a hole – generally the world of the first half of the 20th century. Each one of us has our own coping mechanisms, I guess, but obviously breaking through does require perhaps that one last gasp of air – that garganturan lunge to the finish line. Maybe I’m still ambling. How are you going?

4. Whinge to friends. This is a good one. Twitter and facebook friends are excellent. You can’t see them looking around for a means of escape and only those that feel like lending a friendly ear will respond to your tweets and posts.

5. Regroup. I do find that after a rejection (at least in the early stages of submitting) I am pushed back to have another look at the manuscript. This is my method of regrouping. After yesterday’s rejection I read for the 101st time, the crucial first page. I decided again, that yes, the manuscript did need a prologue but I slashed a few sentences. They were phrases that I had hesitated over previously. They are gone now and the first page is much cleaner.

6. Do not speculate! I’ve done it in the past, you know: “Oh why didn’t they accept my manuscript? Was it because of this, or that or maybe…etc. etc.” Don’t! It is a complete waste of time. Put your frustrated energy into something else. Maybe an idea for a co-operative, start up a meeting of like-minded friends or go to a workshop. Catch up with relatives or see a movie or a play. Anything is better than beating yourself up about it.

These are just a few suggestion. I hope they help. If you are wandering around in the wilderness, like I am, I would love to hear yours!

Beginning the long journey of writing a new novel

Paris Next WeekYes, I know, I’ve just finished my manuscript The Grey Silk Purse and have made my first submission but I’m nervous. As a diversionary tactic I’m researching a new novel. I even have a title – Paris Next Week.

I’m at the absolute beginning which is always exciting. I have a vague idea about the plot and I have the two main locations – Sydney and Paris in the 1920s. I’ve just picked up my first book to read. It is Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier and even after a quick glance it looks like the perfect ticket. The ship hasn’t docked yet but I already have a list of books to take on the voyage and some of these books may even help determine aspects of characterisation and plot.

That’s the fun of researching. You read to learn about something new. It may be Serbia in 1917, Port Stephens in 1942, England in the middle ages and as you find out more information you often stumble across an amazing fact that alters your writing completely.

Originally at the very start of The Grey Silk Purse I had a vague idea that my main character would be a nurse in Salonika, although something nagged at me that this profession wouldn’t suit my Miss Summerville. I began reading about the Australian nurses working there during WWI and discovered that other Australian nurses were working in Serbia, of all places! When the Australian troops were sent to France a lot of our girls were sent to the little known Macedonian Front. I began to read about Serbia in earnest and very quickly stumbled upon the wonderful Olive Kelso King who drove an ambulance. That was more like it. This is what my girl would have been doing!

Through reading I discovered not only the beautiful and very important location Lake Ostrovo for my novel but what my character did during the last year of the war. I read six memoirs of women involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospital and I drew from their knowledge to set the scenes for the most crucial chapters in the book – the why and wherefore of life in a field hospital. I can’t imagine the completed manuscript without all these facts now common knowledge to me. I don’t reveal them all of course but they are crucial to a lot of decisions I made (or my character makes) during the course of her war work.

I now have an even greater admiration for the women who were involved in this terrible conflict. We often talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We can now see that returned soldiers from all major offensives were victims but how did the women cope? We know the men either ended up in asylums or drank excessively after both world wars but what happened to the VADs, the ambulance drivers and the nurses when they returned to civilisation? That question is the driving force of the novel and it’s one I really couldn’t have asked without at least the basic facts behind me. So happy research reading. You’ll never know what you may stumble upon!

Casting the characters in your novel

Miriam Margoyles at the Newcastle Writers Festival

Miriam Margoyles at the Newcastle Writers Festival

Do you, I’m wondering? I’d love to find out what other writers do. I’ve written six novels now. Three are as yet unpublished and I’m starting the rounds next month for my sixth. Strangely though, I’ve only ever cast one of my novels with “real” actors as opposed to descriptions in my head and on the page. Why is that?

I’m not sure except to say that the only one I have cast, is set in contemporary times – 2004 to be exact and I don’t think that is a co-incidence. In Crossing Paths there are eight main characters and they all have approximately 20,000 words each, which is a lot of “air” time. My main character Jane Townsend is the beautiful but fragile Rose Byrne. I just couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role although she is in her thirties now whilst my Jane remains (in the inimical way of fictional characters) still in her twenties. John Cusack is Jeremy Braithwaite. No-one else will do and the same goes for the psychic medium and retired librarian Ruth Moon. She is none other than the indefatigable Miriam Margoyles who was part of Newcastle’s inaugural Writer’s Festival and did a brilliant and very entertaining Catherine de Bourgh for the discussion panel (see pic above) celebrating 200 wonderful years of Pride and Prejudice.

When you are picking actors to play your characters I think it is essential to aim high. Don’t bother with B grade, inexperienced actors. Grab the stars and that’s just what I did for my characters, particularly Mary Darling. Mary has just changed her surname and decided to run her family home on Vancouver Island as a B & B at the start of Crossing Paths. She is an excellent cook and the perfect person to run a B & B – she just doesn’t know it yet as she is lacking self confidence. Now I know Meryl Streep likes a challenge. Here’s one for her! Play a woman who is shy and seriously lacking in self confidence! Not sure I’ve ever seen her do that!

In Cornwall a gay, New Age writer is looking for love and I pretty much envisioned Rupert Penryn-Jones in the role of Jonathan Fairlight. His widowed mother and new bookcrosser Daphne is not one of the eight main characters but I’m sure Helen Mirren would have fun with the role, particularly with her new friend Miriam Margoyles aka Ruth. Have they ever acted together? I don’t think so.

Now the last three characters I didn’t actually cast but that was because suitable actors, I believe, are in abundance for those three roles. A pretty Greek actress who has rudimentary English for Eleni, a sophisticated French actor in his late fifties for Pascal, a French biographer. And lastly a good looking, enigmatic African American actor in his thirties for Russell, a Boston bookshop owner. Too easy!

As for my other novels – my first I don’t think it entered my head to chose actors. It was enough to actually be writing. My second unpublished novel was peopled mainly with my ancestors so it was kind of impossible to make casting decisions. As it was I used my family tree to create the extensive family histories of both the Kittos and the Wearnes and as a result I have messed up my knowledge of actual facts. I’m no longer an expert on our family on my father’s side! Fact and fiction has been irreparably combined in my mind.

For my third unpublished book I was dealing with two sisters from two different times . Both sets of sisters – one beautiful and one plain were inspired by a photo of two sisters from the thirties and with these real women in my head, there was no way my mind was going to make the leap to actors. And I think that’s as it should be.

Likewise my first published novel, Tomaree was also inspired by real people so apart from studying the physical appearance of a real US Serviceman and creating a character around some aspects of him and making my female character a redhead, no one came to mind!

For my last novel, the recently completed manuscript of The Grey Silk Purse no actors have put up their hands. I’m of the belief too that it is often a good thing (particularly when the past is concerned) to let the reader reconstruct the appearance of characters. I’ve had a lively discussion on the subject with Matthew Ward of Mary Celeste Press as to the pros and cons of putting a real person’s face on the cover of a book. If there is no face, the reader can choose a suitable actor if they want to. Or they can decide on a full description in their head (from a few details supplied by me). Either works but it is fun as a writer (when it does happen) to play along with a real life actor, give them exciting action and dialogue and watch a novel spring to life with their help!