Archive for February, 2011

Seven things I have learned while doing my degree

I received a phone call from my supervising lecturer yesterday with the good news that I’ve passed my Master of Arts (Creative Writing) degree.

And with a Distinction, too.

After three years of intensive, hard and sometimes frustrating work, I finally get to wear the funny hat and gown in a few months’ time.  It has been a difficult and testing time, but there have been many highlights and fun times in there as well. My final thesis paper was a 40,000 word novel for children plus a 10,000 word exegesis essay on the research, influences and processes of writing. You can read more about the process in a series of articles here. Now I start the next phase in the process; trying to find a publisher to give my precious novel a good home. This could prove to be the hardest part of all.

So what have I learned?

Doing my degree has taught me some valuable lessons:

  1. Writers can always improve: no matter how much you think you know about writing, you can always get better.
  2. Writing is hard work: I have put in literally thousands of hours of writing, rewriting, editing and proofreading into my essays, assignments and novel.
  3. Writers need persistence: I must admit there were times when I almost gave up, when the task seemed too much or health issues intervened. By persisting I was able to finish the race.
  4. Writers learn to write by writing: there is no other way. Write, write, write – and your writing skills will develop.
  5. Rewriting is as important as writing the first draft: too often I have been satisfied with the attitude my first or second draft of a story or poem. Most first drafts are rubbish. My novel went through an incredible 17 drafts before I was truly happy with it.
  6. Editing is a part of the creative process: I used to hate editing my stories. I found it tedious and boring. I wanted to be rid of the story and to get on with the next one. Editing is an essential part of the writing process; ignore this stage and your writing will remain mediocre – and unpublished. I still don’t love editing, but I have come to appreciate its importance.
  7. Proofreading is an essential writing skill: editors and publishers are almost unanimous in their chief gripes about writers, and this one is almost always near the top of their list. If you don’t proofread your writing before sending it off to a publisher you stand a very poor chance of having the work published.

I could go on, but these seven things stand out. I probably could add patience too, because that lesson is still coming. Sure, I have had to wait a long time to get my final results, but the wait to hear from a publisher is sure to be much longer, and then the wait to hold the book in my hands may be even longer. But as they say, good things come to those who wait.

And if patience is a virtue, then I must be very virtuous.

Good writing.

Further reading:

Bookshop chains in trouble

I love bookshops.

I could easily work in one but then I wouldn’t have as much time to read and write. Never mind.

Sadly, news came earlier this week that two big bookshop chains here in Australia are in financial trouble and have gone into voluntary administration. I have enjoyed many visits to both Borders and Angus and Robertson (A&R) shops over the years. A&R actually bought out the struggling Borders sometime in the last year or so. The Australian Borders chain has no financial connections with the American chain which is also in trouble. A&R is one the oldest and most respected chain bookshops in Australia with a history stretching back over 150 years. I’m not sure how this will effect the local shop in my own hometown.

Rapidly growing internet sales of books, especially to overseas giants like Amazon, have been blamed. You can read more details on the ABC website here. I must admit to buying some books online, but only shops here in Australia, and generally only those I can’t physically visit due to distance. These are usually genre specific shops. Most of my books are still bought in traditional bookshops, but I see my buying habits are changing too. I now do a large proportion of my business and bill paying online.

If these two chains o under, the effect on readers will certainly be significant. How this will impact on writers is yet to be seen.

Good reading and good writing.

What I am reading: 84 Charing Cross Road

I recently read this classic book first published in 1970. Most people know the story: New York author Helene Hanff writes letters to a London bookshop situated at 84 Charing Cross Road. This charming book reprints the many letters that she sends to the bookshop over many years as she requests copies of various books she wishes to read, and the replies from the people working in the shop.

While this book is a thin volume it still fascinates the reader, despite its quaint and somewhat outdated attitudes and expressions. It is a reminder of a by-gone era, when people had time to correspond, when books were treasured items to be sought after and possessed – not kept on e-readers – and when times in post-war England were quite different as well as difficult.

84 Charing Cross Road was written by Helene Hanff and published by Penguin.

A place to write

Every writer needs a place to write.

That’s a statement which is easily challenged. Is it really true? No.

Where I write:

In the last seven years the vast majority of my writing is done on my laptop in my office at home. This used to be our bedroom, but we changed our rooms around a few years ago because this room was too big as a room just used for sleeping. It doubles as an office for my wife and as a sewing room for her too, though she tends to be too busy to do as much sewing as she would like. This office has numerous bookshelves with many reference books, two printers, two filing cabinets, a phone and a modem. It also has my very comfortable old reading chair; must have one of those. More than 90% of my writing is done on my laptop at my desk.

I occasionally write in other places too. Below is a list of some places I can remember pursuing my writing:

  1. In the lounge room in front of the television; not ideal, but it happens.
  2. In our sun room overlooking a part of the garden with several bird baths. This spot is ideal for getting inspiration for my birding blog.
  3. On our front veranda; this is a good spot for writing poetry on a hot morning. It has a wonderful view to nearby hills; inspiring.
  4. On our back veranda overlooking the swimming pool. Fine in winter when the sun is shining but hot in summer with the temptation of the cool pool water presenting a diversion from writing.
  5. In the caravan on holidays in wonderful places we visit.
  6. On the beach, though it’s hard to focus on writing and not sleeping, or swimming, or just watching the waves.
  7. Down by the river. The mighty Murray River is a five minute drive from home.
  8. In church; inspiration can come anywhere, any time and what better place to be inspired?
  9. In a doctor’s waiting room; this shows the importance of always carrying a note book.
  10. In a library; a lovely quiet place for writing.
  11. In a park; my state capital city has many beautiful parks just begging for writers to breathe in the inspiration.
  12. In a hotel or motel room while on holidays.
  13. In a lodge on a trek in Nepal with a view of Mt Everest – probably the most exotic place I have written – you can read about it on my travel blog here.
  14. In the car while travelling. (My wife was driving at the time in case you were worried. On one occasion I did compose a poem while driving, reciting it over and over until I could pull over safely and write it down.)
  15. In my classroom in another life, modelling how to write for my students.
  16. In my hospital bed; I wrote a good part of the text of a picture book while in hospital a few years ago.

There is no one place that is totally ideal for writing. It can happen successfully anywhere and that is one of the beauties of being a writer. On this topic I found a very interesting article called “Where are the best places to write“.  It seems that many writers used a favourite cafe for writing. We do not have many cafes in my home town so I haven’t really pursued that avenue, though it sounds very attractive.

Reader response: I invite my readers to tell me their favourite or usual places where they write. I would be delighted to receive a whole raft of suggestions.

Good writing.

Three enemies of writing

Writing can be both wonderful and frustrating.

When a story or poem is coming along fine, everything is wonderful. When a novel is turning out the way you want it to, and the words are flowing, life is glorious.

But the writer’s life can also be frustrating. Your family, friends, life and sometimes even the Universe conspire to prevent you from your first love, writing. They can become great burdens, or enormous hindrances to The Creative Life.

But lurking underneath these obvious mountains preventing the next publishing sensation from reaching the shelves of our favourite bookshop are three not-so-subtle enemies of our writing life.

Enemy #1: Procrastination:

I think I could write a PhD thesis paper on this topic.

If I ever get around to it, of course.

Procrastination is Enemy #1 of too many writers. Consider these statements:

  • “I never have any good ideas for stories.”
  • “I’m too tired to write.”
  • “I’ll start that novel – on the weekend.”
  • “I’m too busy at work but I’ll write when I retire.”
  • “My computer has died.”

Don’t let these be your excuses: just do it.

Enemy #2: Lack of Momentum

Momentum – or rather lack of momentum – can kill off a brilliant career in writing before you even get started. And if you do get started, and life gets in the way, lack of momentum can bury the body. It is so hard to get something like a locomotive moving, but once started, it builds its own momentum and before you know it, a runaway train is thundering down the mountains taking all in its path. Starting a train is like starting a story or novel; once it gets moving get out of its way and let it choose its own path. A little bit of writing every day – consistently without fail –  is far better than leaving it for the weekend, or the holidays or retirement.

Enemy #3: Timewasters

Time wasters speak for themselves.

If you are doing something other than writing, no matter how interesting and worthwhile,  there is no way you can reach your writing goals. (You do have writing goals, surely? They can be good motivators and can help keep that momentum going.) Identify your time-wasters and put them in their proper place. Some I grapple with include:

  • Some television programmes.
  • Checking Facebook and Twitter feeds many times a day.
  • Checking my email several times a day.
  • Unexpected visitors.
  • Unexpected phone calls.
  • Computer games.

Time management for writers is essential. Get those time-wasters under control and you will be more productive. (Note to self: take note of what I’ve just written – and apply it!)

Reader responses: in the comments tell me about your Writing Enemies, and how you deal with them. I’d appreciate that.

Good writing.