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.

Author platforms and protecting your intellectual property

iconsWe are constantly told that we need to work on our author platform – as many social media sites as possible. Well that’s fine. That’s the way the world is in the 21st century but how to find the time to maintain them all that is the big question! Of course it is a matter of personal preferences as to which ones you chose of the many. Personally, I have found that Pinterest, WordPress, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon and LinkedIn are the most useful for me – the first five in particular.

But I’m not writing this blog to say get on all these now. I actually want to talk about a problem that seems to be overlooked. And that is protecting your intellectual property. In Goodreads, more so than Amazon, I’ve found that unless an author completes their profile and identifies which books are theirs, things can get really confusing.

I am a librarian on Goodreads, a Goodreads author and a participant of the wonderful Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. What’s been happening recently for me is that I have read several books where the author’s profile is not up on Goodreads. This may not appear to be a big problem for a lot of authors. It’s just one of the platforms they don’t have time for. But what they don’t realise is that when their profile is not completed a search of their name (without a profile) will bring up all the books for that name and some of the titles will not be theirs! In other words the author is not claiming and separating from other authors, their intellectual property.

As I am, like a lot of authors:
Working full time
Writing my novel,
Doing my research,
Maintaining my author platforms
Answering emails
Blogging. And, as well:
Participating in the AWWC
And of course, trying to have a personal life…
There is not really much time for extra stuff.

That’s why I am endeavouring to help in a small way. I hope to assist all the poets that I have featured at my community page www.starvinginagarret.com in making sure Goodreads reflects what they themselves have written. I am also either putting up profiles of authors who don’t appear on Goodreads but whose book or books I have just read. And sometimes this might be an author who has died but whose work I feel deserves a new audience such as Jean Curlewis. (I still have to put up her three other books).

In regards to separating titles that is a delicate process that I only do in collaboration with the author. I cannot presume to know all the titles they have written. So authors make sure Goodreads reflects who you are and what you have written. You mightn’t want to have to tackle this but you do want readers to find your books easily – and that, finally, is what a successful platform is about.

Vera Atkins won’t leave me alone!

Special Operations Executive

Special Operations Executive

Yes, I do mean Vera Atkins of Special Operations Executive Section F fame. I first heard of the SOE agents probably around fifteen years ago when I began researching WWII for my novel Tomaree. I have been fascinated with the amazing women of SOE ever since.

About 18 months ago on goodreads I read about a book entitled A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and missing agents of WWII by Sarah Helm. I marked the book to read and thought that someday, when I had a bit of time, I would read it. After all, I am currently researching Sydney in the 1920s and when I am not reading books on that subject I am participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 so Vera would definitely have to wait!

Well it seems she wouldn’t wait! As a writer I do not ignore that funny hunch, the information that appears unrelated to my research but falls into my lap and even photographs that I can’t ignore. They do often turn out to be important in some way. But, let’s face it, how can female WWII agents and the woman that recruited and mentored them, have anything to do with my current manuscript? I have no idea but I can’t put the book down!

It seems inconceivable now the circumstances that these agents operated under – constantly having to move from place to place and fully aware that they may be captured at any time. Of approximately 400 men and women of F section that were couriers, radio operators and organisers, over 100 did not return.  39 SOE women were sent undercover, 13 did not return – a loss of one in three which is tragic. 

I can’t wait to find out how Vera Atkins (travelling to Germany after the war) eventually uncovered the fate of all but one of the missing F Section agents, all the while remaining a mystery herself that Sarah Helm must uncover.

Stay tuned for a review of A Life in Secrets.

What I’m currently reading and/or am about to read or are on my bedside table.

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous but what can I say? And you haven’t seen my TBR (to be read) pile yet. I’m a bookcrosser – lakelady2282 at www.bookcrossing.com and things can get out of control. Goodreads – www.goodreads.com doesn’t help either. According to goodreads I am currently reading 8 books. Seven of those are pictured above and the eighth is Dracula which I began reading about two years ago whilst at work (at a job where there was nothing to do).

Wikisource http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikisource is wonderful for this. You open up the book on your computer screen, say The Scarlett Letter or Sense and Sensibility (making sure the chapter heading is not showing and it looks like you are reading some sort of detailed manual). Perfect! It’s how I read both the last two books.

As to the pile pictured above – well let’s see. I started The Facing Island by the historian  Jan Bassett ages ago. It is about WWI so it should be a priority to read but somehow I still haven’t got around to it. I know I will though.There’s With My Body by Nikki Gemmell which I keep interrupting to read other books, mainly because it’s too heavy to take to work (to read in my lunch break). And then as you will have spied by the familiar cover there is Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James which I have pretty much abandoned like a hell of a lot of other readers…evidently. I keep thinking I might get around to reading at least to the heavy BDSM section but always end up reading something else.

Also on the goodreads list is Early One Morning by Robert Ryan. The book is about SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents in WW2, a subject I’m really interested in and I should finish this book soon. Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau I began (before I finished any of the other seven) so I could send it out on the VBB (Virtual Book Bag) 1001 (1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die) being run by a lovely bookcrosser. There’s And So Forth an excellent collection of essays by the erudite Robert Dessaix (but I don’t always feel like reading essays so it’s still not finished). And lastly The Collected Wisdom of Florence Scovel Shinn which I dip into every now and then.

Now we come to the remainder of the books pictured. These are the ones I lugged home from Speers Point Library yesterday.I still need to research Australian nurses during the First World War so I borrowed Nightingales in the Mud by Marianne Barker. I am also currently trying to find a few books that my character Phyllis Summerville is reading and sharing with other passengers on board ship to England in September 1917. The 1001 book is useful for this. D H Lawrence is also very useful as I wanted a few risque books. The Rainbow seemed perfect until I found out it was banned for eleven years. I chose Sons and Lovers and his first novel The White Peacock (the small orange book, top of the right pile). I won’t use the latter. I’ll probably settle on Sons and Lovers for its shock value but I need to check this so will scan through the book. That’s three down of the second lot. I borrowed The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan because that’s the book Phyllis actually chooses to read instead of the Lawrence (so now I need to re-read it). When I chose the Buchan book from the stacks out the back I discovered Singleton’s Mill next to it by an Australian author Sinclair Buchan. (It’s the book on the top of the left pile.) I just might have to read this book too.

The River Baptists I especially ordered from the library after hearing Belinda Castles speak at This Is Not Art last weekend in Newcastle. I googled her name and found out that this book is set in the Hawkesbury River, a place I know and love from my teenage years when my parents owned a Halvorsen cruiser. I am really looking forward to reading this book. It is high on my list to be finished first but its tied with the other book that was on display at the library entitled Why Not Say What Happened? a memoir by Ivana Lowell. Who can resist “a heartbreaking account of a gifted woman, her brilliant but destructive parents, and a glamourous, aristocratic life that was laced with arsenic”?

Certainly not me! So there is the complete list of the books pictured above which pretty much exemplifies my life at present – researching WWI whilst being distracted by sex (as such), the glamourous life (the grass is greener) and generally taking too much on!! What more can I say, except reviews to follow… I hope.