Writing: A short history of lessons learned

Background: This post began as my side of an email conversation with a friend who is also a professional illustrator/author. I did warn them it would become a blog post! They had had rigorous artistic training with solid mentors, but their writing education was more diffuse, focussed on the sentence level, and usually in service to illustration rather than pursued as an independent craft (they are very good, though! also this is de-identified but it describes a lot of illustrator-authors I know, in one direction or another, including myself). This made me sit down and think about how I have learned the bits about writing that I do know, resulting in the following very high-level summary.

Caveats: I’m still learning. This is less advice than description, and therefore partly cautionary — to the extent it is advice, it is advice to a particular person.

Short answer: The most important thing for me — and from what you’ve said, possibly also for you — is to actually finish an (ugly and incoherent) Thing of roughly the size and type you want to write (ignoring ALL the sentence-level stuff) and then learn on that as you try to breathe life into it. It gives you something to put the bigger craft lessons to work on, and also very viscerally teaches you what not to do. And it might turn into something great (parts of Flyaway started as very larval drafts a long time ago) but it will CERTAINLY make everything you do next make more sense and be easier. This does not seem efficient. But it is. 
If I were you, I would foolishly and gleefully do NaNoWriMo and damn the torpedoes. And then possibly do it again. But I treat it as the world’s largest parlour game, so your mileage may vary.

Long answer: I was trying to work out how best to organise my thoughts, and thought it might be simplest to just list the order in which I think I learned things, and how it happened. Then you can ask me for more information on any of them!

  1. I always wrote: It sounds like this is you, too! Just that constant background hum of thinking in words, doing exercises, reading books — sort of doing scales on a mental piano. I accidentally became an illustrator due to the events in Step 6.
  2. I entered poetry and writing competitions early and relatively often: That was one of the first experiences of deadlines and an external standard to try and meet — and the high you get when things are well-received.
  3. A genre writing group: (Vision Writers in Brisbane — and I still have many friends from those days.) This came with a degree of expectation that I would write. It taught me to take and give critique. It also taught me to navigate people’s tastes and come to terms with them. It also gave that sense that we were all running together in the same direction.
    Also when I started we had to bring printouts of our story and then sit there while people quietly read through them, and few things really feel stressful after that.
  4. Rereading and deep reading of books: I’m not naturally a structural thinker. Rereading and talking about and thinking through books gave me a deep familiarity with books and stories I like that can stand in for structure. It also gave me a library/arsenal of techniques and tricks. It’s also become a source of things to reimagine. Also my dad’s favourite book is Pride & Prejudice, which I like but getting through many, many, manymany readings and viewings of it (since he can’t read for himself any more) has been educational!
  5. Conventions: Again, that sense of possibility and running together. Enthusiasm and ideas. Friendships that later make projects happen. “Benchmarking” in the sense of realising these people do what you do. You know all this!
  6. Writing regularly: This looks different at different times. At the most significant point, I was doing 100 words (of anything) every day — very brief. This is like doing scales: I stay in practice and if I need to/decide to write anything serious, I’m not starting cold. Also eventually it frustrated me and I wanted to write more. Also it meant I couldn’t get to the end of a year and say I hadn’t written anything. And little bits add up — the cumulative power of it is impressive. The reason for the 100 words/day was that I was working until 1 in the morning, often, as a young lawyer, and doing too many other things, so I picked the ones I wanted to, could do, and would do every day — I lived in a wooden sharehouse and so had to quit the bagpipes, but I could write 100 words and draw a smiley face before I fell into bed. 
  7. Ad hoc mentorship: My relationship with Angela Slatter progressed from my being the terrified (but grateful) recipient of rigorous critiques (“flensing“) to a friend and mentor. Consistent and rigorous feedback is incredibly educational, once you work out and apply the lessons! This helped me to acquire a voice-in-the-back-of-my-mind which could stand in for instinct on some things (the rule of threes, not waffling, remembering to put page numbers in…). I was also able to sort of sit on her shoulder and watch her navigating the industry. Someone to scold you and vouch for you and help you send your stories to the right places is very useful.
  8. NaNoWriMo: Some people loathe NaNoWriMo. I adore it. Basically, you race to write 50,000 consecutive words of fiction in November. I learn slowly, so over a series of years it taught me: the fun of spreadsheets; to write; to write fast; to write and not even think about editing until the draft is down; when and how to start shaping a story towards an end; how to finish a story; how a story feels as it takes shape; how much easier things are with a plan; how to write fast to a plan. 
  9. FINISHING A THING: Probably the most important thing. Not enough on its own but I couldn’t have done anything else without it. There are things I couldn’t have understood without getting to that stage. It comes with a sense of desperation, the vital lessons of plastering cracks and skating over thin ice, patch fixes and so on. But you also learn what the shape of a whole thing feels like, even if it is weirdly boneless and strangely formed and far too large. It’s a remarkable high having done it. Even — and maybe especially — if you’re exhausted and it’s ugly. And after that so much writing advice I “knew” actually started to make sense. (For example: I always secretly thought people who talked about writing 15 drafts were being inefficient, but it’s incredible to get to the end of a first draft and look at it and tell yourself: it’s okay. I have 14 more tries to get this right.)
  10. Kim Wilkin’s Bootcamp: I did a structural workshop run by Kim Wilkins (later my MPhil and current PhD advisor). She has a very pragmatic and quite flexible approach to structure, and it helped me a lot with later plans. A big lesson somewhere in all of this, though, was that for me and the sort of writing I want to do (possibly similar to you), narrative structure and the theories about it are fun and inspiring and FAR more useful as a diagnostic tool than as an actual guide to writing. (Also I’ve discovered I plan at different stages depending on the genre.)
  11. Doing the MPhil (sort of a half-size PhD — I wrote Flyaway during it): This gave me space, money, expectation, deadline, and obligation. It gave me an external purpose and structure. It also gave me the impetus to really analyse other people’s work, as part of the research, which turned out to be a valuable skill (who knew?). This helped me learn to write as a writer, not as a reader.  
  12. Analysis: I did this with the MPhil, and the Observation Journal activities I’ve been blogging about help a lot. But I learned the importance of it when I decided to analyse things that weren’t in my genre. I was too close to fantasy to read it critically — at some point it would sweep me away. So I chose a genre close to one I like — I like Georgette Heyer, but I hadn’t read a lot of modern Regency romance. I decided to read them seriously and find out how they worked, and what the authors were doing, and why they were doing it (the one that finally made it all click to me was a very consciously and delightfully ridiculous Tessa Dare Regency that was also kind of about Star Wars fandom). Then I planned a couple and wrote two (currently circulating behind the scenes). Hugely educational, ludicrously entertaining.
  13. Various other workshops: These have been great (inspirational, informative) but would have been far less useful without all the lessons above. Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler were great (Kelly had a trick for navigating what you want to write), Anne Gracie (the only one I haven’t illustrated for!) had neat ways to trick oneself into planning (while also learning how a book works). I go to illustration workshops looking for writing lessons, too — it’s all narrative.

Main lessons, in the order learned:

  • Knowing I wanted to do it.
  • Actually doing it.
  • Finishing it.
  • Getting stylish.
  • Running with others.
  • Learning structure.  

Moleskine exchange: Portrait of Robin

Moly_X: Robin's moly

This is my latest portrait for the Portrait Party Moleskine Exchange: http://mxportraits1.blogspot.com . Robin, on the right, is the owner of this sketchbook. The little birds came about because of the paint spots Jan (previous artist) left for me to work with. The dress is new.

In other news, NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow. I am looking forward to it, and trying not to resent it a little because I was just getting back into the short story swing. I submitted 2 tonight: M (epistolary Australian vampire/thumbelina fable, although one of the very kind people who critiqued it at the last minute said it reminded her more of the Gingerbread Man) for an anthology, and that Australian Scarlet Letter/Cinderella/St George story E&tF which I hope finds a home, poor thing.

NaNoWriMo is over!

Total words: 60942, (personal goal was 60,000) and I am two scenes away from the end of this stage of the story – it would be nice to think I could wrap that up in another, say, 2000 words. Maybe tomorrow.

Middle words: and walked (this phrase is used 16 times)

First line: Marion woke up and it was all a dream. (I’m going to lose this, but I’ve wanted to start something that way for a while).

Last line: Marion said, “I am sure that when the idea occurs to them, poison will take their fancy.”

Most pointless adventure: Duplicated a character and had to kill off one version with a carnivorous waterhorse. This failed to make the surviving half any more interesting.

Favourite part: Bloodthirsty rose maze.

Favourite story-within-story: A ghostly version of LRR in which the grandmother gets to say, “My, what big eyes you have!”.

Worst parts: Aimless angst.

Best realisation: That there were some themes emerging – paths between worlds, beast-people and truth-despite-love.

Part that would probably be the most embarrassing to read out loud: any of the indirectly reported lyrics.

Best lesson: Lay clues, foreshadow, and give ominous predictions. These are more fun if you have no idea what they are clues to, and prove invaluable down the track. The double-sided coats and talkative convent students and wolf-faced old women and mysterious cups that I littered through the story last year for no good reason (other than having no idea what was happening) turned out to tie in with curses of truth, and timid teenagers, and roads that go through more than one forest, and lost daughters and pied pipers and tides of gnawing, chittering things. Maybe next year they will even feed back into the main plot.

Secondary lesson: If you mention archery in the working title, it is pretty much a given that you will never, ever be able to get anyone in the story anywhere near a bow and arrow. Well, someone found a golden arrow in their roast, but that only happened last night, and out of desperation.

Things to do once November is over: Write short stories! Read novels. Talk to people. Answer emails. Tear out all the secret-project-scribbles and pin them to corkboards around the house. Be civilised. Take the plastic wrap off the mop. Rearrange chairs. Sketch in my sketchbook. Design Christmas cards. Not resent mealtimes. Move. Look at photos of tiger farms in Brisbane and wonder whether I can work that into a secret project. Eat vegetables. Not feel guilty about working over lunchtime instead of writing. Go to movies. Think it’s realistic that I might go to bed at a reasonable time. Remember the existence of things like “editing” and “proof-reading” and “spelling”.


Just sayin'

Just sayin’.

Still aiming for a second goal of 60,000.

Another NaNo post

I just hit halfway. 25,094 words. 50.19%. I find out tomorrow whether something-at-the-day-job is going to happen which will mean I need to bow out. But still – an average of 2,091 a day so far, and if I average 1,384 from here on in, I can still make it. Having run some studies, I can write at least 400 words in 10 minutes, which means at least 10.4 hours of writing remaining.

Did I mention I like spreadsheets?

My NaNoWriMo spreadsheet has columns for:

  • Target
  • Total
  • Daily
  • Av. to date
  • Av. daily
  • Remaining
  • Av. remaining
  • 2nd target
  • Remaining
  • %

plus a chart of various values and some other calculations (writing minutes remaining, average needed to obtain higher word counts) off to the side.

It isn’t procrastination – I set it up once and can use it over again, it takes moments to update and I love seeing the numbers tick over and grow and fall, the lines on the chart move and waver and cross. My biggest motivation is adding in the new total and seeing how many I have written for the day, how the averages shift.

It’s great for this sort of writing because it makes it a game against myself, a challenge, a strategy of little by little and bit by bit (and yes, I have a spreadsheet with various compound interest calculations that I carry around on my thumbdrive). It keeps my eye on the goal: words on paper. And sometimes, when I get to the end, I look back and find pieces that are even salvagable, links and patterns and plots wavering out of the fever dream.

And sometimes I look back and realise I’ve just written an unrelated interlude which is best characterised as “Orpheus & Eurydice” + selkies + “Gawain and the Loathly Lady” + Thomas the Rhymer, with advice (but not philosophy!) from a very lost Robin and Little John, roses, mortality and a musing on social responsibility.

NaNoWriMo 2009

Someone asked at Conflux whether NaNoWriMo was a good thing for one’s writing, and I said I don’t know – it could be the worst imaginable thing for it. But as the world’s most extreme parlour game? For that, I would recommend it to anyone!

So I am doing NaNoWriMo again and have just reached 27% of the wordcount (the 50,000 words, that is – I’m not trying a repeat of the 90,000 I did last year). And so far it is… much as it always is. Agonising and crazy-making and fun and horrific and startling, and full of lessons that I knew in theory but had to learn in practice.

These are my personal November writing principles.

  1. Writing can be like an inkblot: if I fling enough words at the page eventually I start seeing things.
  2. I may never get around to editing what I do have, but I can’t edit what I don’t have.
  3. Keep moving forward.
  4. Never go back.
  5. When a character sticks, add a new one, or dredge up an old one. Some of my favourite characters started as space-fillers who got grafted back in when I suddenly needed an extra speaking part.
  6. When a scene sticks, change scenes. Even in the middle. Especially in the middle – this has the double benefit of giving tension to the plot on one hand, and time to work out what happened on the other.
  7. When the plot sticks, use high explosives. I’m quite serious about this – in a pre-industrial setting, particularly, it can give pages of people running around and trying to work out what happened, and why.
  8. If I can’t lose characters in a forest, I can occasionally lose them up a tree.
  9. Trade contractions in for adjectives.
  10. Describe liberally – if I describe in circles around a scene for a while at high speed, I will usually write a detail that could come in handy.
  11. Graft old established plots in. I started my NaNoWriMo project with a well known legend, but throwing in an element or two of a fairytale can liven things up a bit. It gives a line for my fingers to follow while my mind is thinking of ways to remix it.

Number 11 is a lot of fun. It’s the one I usually rember to use when it isn’t November, and is a way of tapping into patterns and echoes of stories and then just messing with them. There are usually a few examples in most of my stories – an irish fairytale blended with some A. A. Milne and a bit of John Birmingham, or Cinderella meets The Crucible with a dash of the Paper Bag Princess.

The thought process tends to go: I don’t know what is happening at the end of this sentence so – oh, here is a tree. I will send my character up a tree. Now what? It would be boring to just come down. Okay, she will get lost in the tree and come down in another part of the forest. Now she is lost in the woods. Okay, she should meet… meet a wolf. Who turns out to be a motherly, Tiggy-Winklish wolfish sort of person, who keeps mysteriously losing chickens. This has tied into a whole subplot of lost things (shoes and cups and kingdoms and hearts). It does give a lot of draggled loose ends, but that means there are more threads to weave back into the plot later on. At the moment, I am pulling together a Sleeping-Beauty-as-murder-victim strand with a Lancelot-is-really-Orpheus strand and about to add a dash of Tristan and Ysolde.

Of course, it also yields such awkward situations as a character who was entertaining, but going nowhere, so I had to duplicate him and then kill off his first manifestation with a conveniently-timed carnivorous waterhorse. But hey! It’s NaNoWriMo! No one ever has to read that part, and if I ever do need a story about a carnivorous waterhorse, I’ve got a page of description all set up there ready to go.

Not with a bang but a whimper


90 thousand and… something. 83 by my count, 539 by the NaNoWriMo word count. And while I did not finish the draft of the novel, I did come to the end of the first section, and a natural break. Call it Part One: A Coat of Green. M-M F, R (formerly C G) and their merry company will return in Part Two: A Staff of Ash. Added to the 12,000 words I wrote a month or two ago, it gets me past the 100,000 word draft I put on my list of Aspirations for 2008.

There are interesting things in it. Salveagable things. Possibly even some parts that with pruning and research could become a story. Aimee, if/when she gets to read it, has strict instructions to just indicate the parts she likes.

I want to celebrate but I think I would fall over. Maybe I will celebrate by sleeping in until 6am tomorrow. Or doing something with ink.

Not this year’s Christmas Card

Not this year's Christmas card

This was a rough sketch for a Christmas card but I left it too late to finish and have printed in time to send(*coughNaNoWriMocough*). The backup plan involves brayers and presses and using black ink which splashes everywhere when you wash it off the perspex. Especially if I am still wearing office clothes.

In writing, which subsumes… well, obviously not every waking moment, but a lot of them, I am over 81,000 words on the NaNoWriMo project. It is eventful if not cohesive. Bruce Gillespie of Steam Engine Times was very nice about the part of a story that I read at Conflux. I am also accumulating short story ideas to take further when November ends. There are werewolves and masks and ibises and alien anthropologists and archivists and librarians and time travel and tramyard fires and a city which was almost called Edenglassie (that part’s apparently true), and given that I am overdoing NaNoWriMo, working on art, going to life drawing classes, showing up at work, learning to do lino printing, going to the movies and practising writing with my left hand, I will not admit to writing more than the working titles, my favourite of which is about pineapples.

And yes, I know I haven’t done the reviews for last month yet. Two more days to get them done and still be within time!

NaNoWriMo Update

Days: 19

Words: 50,042

Average daily word count: 2,634

First word: Marion

50,000th word: could

Primary motivation: spreadsheet

Plot: let’s not talk about that

Back: sore

Reward: Acer Aspire One netbook

NaNoWriMo 2008

(Wordle can be seen larger at Wordle. Chart extracted from my Excel spreadsheet tracking goals, averages etc).

Why I will not be a juggler

I have decided not to learn to juggle. It is incompatible with my personality.

As an illustration, it is now November. On 1 November, a Saturday, I celebrated the beginning of NaNoWriMo by going out for morning tea, shopping and high tea, went for a run and wrote 3,336 words. On Sunday, after doing chores, I left the house at 10.00am, had coffee at Togninis while reading stories for critique, went to Vision, was inadvertently elected president, went out to lunch with assorted Visionaries, went to church, had church dinner, stopped in to visit friends in Toowong and wrote 3,639 words. Monday and Tuesday were work days. I stayed ahead of the writing curve on Monday while working, went to admission drinks after work, went to an improv comedy session after that then came home and drew. On Tuesday night I went to the usual Tuesday night dinner and movies, came home and drew. Today, I was distracted by elections, had a translation due and also started designing Christmas cards. I am holding steady on work hours, and have just reached 13,876 words.

If I were ever to learn to juggle, I am pretty sure someone would teach me to juggle three balls. I would then think to myself, “Oh, I can do this – with seven! – chainsaws! – running! – on fire! – with no instruction! – first time!”.

This is why I consider NaNoWriMo more a character building exercise than a writing challenge. It teaches me many things about myself. And it is safer than juggling with flaming chainsaws.

For those interested in such things, current NaNoStats are:

Title: Crown of Leaves

Synopsis: All the myths that’ll fit to print

Words: 13,876/50,000

First word: Marion

10,000th word: Clorinda

Deaths on screen: 0

Murders, implied: 5