Improving your writing when you’re not ‘Writing’

This is my way of saying ‘Sorry!” for not posting as much as I’d like to.

Over the last few months, I’ve committed to several different writerly things. I’ve finished structural edits on three novels (not mine), committed to making at least the 50% mark on my current WIP, posting a poem every week, and jumping in with the #6amAusWriters.

This is aside from my usual studies (a weird mix of poetry and theatrical monologues), volunteering at Conflux (which requires a significant amount of prep work)… and of course, my day job.

I knew I had a busy time coming up and was all prepped for it. Then life decided to kick my ass and remind me of my limits.

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Seems pretty accurate right now           Image:https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1108067-webcomics

 

Without going into too much detail in the interest of privacy for the rest of my family, a bunch of pre-existing medical conditions decided to flare up, another bunch decided that they would join the party and bring surgery requirements with them. Even as I type this, I’m absolutely wrecked from a couple of nights of heading to the ED. As usual, this was the time work decided to throw a bunch of curveballs as well.

As a combination of a workaholic, a writeaholic, and dedicated family type, I was loading up my plate with far too much, and desperate not to let anything fall by the wayside – which is basically the best way to make sure it does – and I couldn’t work out why I was always tired and wasn’t getting anything done.

Thankfully, I have friends. I know, if we believe all the memes out there, they don’t really exist for adults, right? But I have a few, and one of them sent out something of a desperate plea for advice on how to stay involved with writing when for a bunch of (very) legitimate reasons they were not able to prioritise writing.

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I’ve moved (on average) once a year for the last fifteen years. Kind of makes the friends thing hard.  Image: https://ivyfromidaho.com/2018/05/07/no-new-friends-know-new-friends/

It reminded me of something very important; that there are things out there that need to be prioritised above writing, and even though there is a lot of pressure to ‘just keep writing’, and ‘write every day’, to make those deadlines and keep all those commitments – sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is just relax, and step back a bit. Give ourselves a break from the pressures we put on ourselves.

But it also reminded me that even at those times that the writing might not be kicking along so much, there are still ways to incorporate it and stay in touch. That’s what my friend was worried about, that she would lose her way with writing, and so we discussed how to keep ourselves involved, even when those times when life was doing its best to get us away from the keyboard.

 

Make your opportunities . . .then turbocharge them

 This isn’t the same as writing every day or scheduling a block a week. For me, it was the one weekend a month I can sit down and focus entirely on the Australian Writers’ Centre’s Furious Fiction comp. I still write where I can in between, but this is the one weekend a month when Writer-Brain Nathan gets to run the show. In a hospital room? Whip out the phone. Need to go somewhere? Catch a train/bus, and use the laptop. Driving? Dictate to the phone. Watching Netflix? Analyse the story, the mechanisms, and try to work out the deliberate and unintentional consequences of each element. At work? Take a notebook. Label it work stuff. Don’t let the boss see the inside… and hope he doesn’t read your blog.

These aren’t new – they are things I often do anyway when I have the mental energy and space to do it (except, if you’re reading this sir, the ‘writing at work’ bit). With the situations here though, I’ve not been able to maintain it for extended periods. But I can turbocharge it for one weekend a month and use that to learn and develop my techniques with a ferocity and intensity that echoes throughout the rest of the month.

 

Remember those friends I mentioned? Use them, but in a good way

Writers won’t always ask for help, but if you can’t work on your WIP, guaranteed if you offer to help others people will generally take it up. Whether beta reading, critiquing, or even just troubleshooting some issues with them, its surprising how much can be learnt by the process, and how much that can improve your own writing. In short, it gives perstives, and the more of them we can consider as writers, the more informed writing will be.

By reading submissions and doing structural edits for Odyssey Books, I’m developing a skill set and an outlet that enables me to still contribute to writing and learn even when my brain is too exhausted to be creative. I’m lucky enough to have a fair bit of free will over which manuscripts I get to work on, and it’s been a great tool for me to learn the craft. For some others I know, their strength is in beta reading or cover design, or some other niche. I don’t think I’m alone when I say working on someone else’s work can seem much easier than working on your own – yet it can help develop craft, show techniques, and improve skills as much as writing yourself.

 

Find external ways to practice techniques

This is one I’ve really enjoyed. My work has a pretty high concentration of professionals in a bunch of different industries that require high levels of dedication, knowledge, and application. Within their areas, they are fantastic, but very few know how to write a novel.

That might not sound too important in a corporate environment, so let me rephrase:

They don’t know how to construct a document with thematic consistency, that is constructed to elicit a particular set of reactions, or that sets specific expectations and outcomes, and all the while remains engaging.

Policy, doctrine, business cases; these are things that no-one in my workplace wants to do, and when they do write them, they take months through a lack of interest and experience. Then at the end, after months of grinding away, they get rejected.

Even as an amateur writing, by writing and editing just a few documents (and taking a business writing course also with the AWC) I’ve been able to position myself as a go-to for writing documentation. Essentially, I’m hoping that its framing me as a specialist technical writer.

Just to be clear, I’m not insinuating that fiction and business writing are the same – there are vast differences between them – but there are techniques I’ve been able to practice across both.

For example, making the first line engaging. Whether for a business case or a an epic fantasy, if that first line can engage a reader, then a positive context has been set for the remainder. Likewise, introducing the theme or purpose clearly and up front has benefits for both. Ensuring the remaining paragraphs support or at least remain relevant to that theme or purpose is again a transferable skill.

Eliciting reaction; in fiction, do I want the reader to be sad, terrified, relieved etc can change to framing the text so the reader is excited, impressed, informed, or sometimes just comfortable that everything is under control. The amount of times I’ve seen a three-page email that outlines the problem, works people into a panic, and hidden away is a tiny line about how the solution is already in place – its astounding, and elicits panic. Not the desired outcome. On the flip side, an email of ‘FYI, please find below an outline of the current state of (project name). Please note that a solution by (methodology/brief summation) has been identified/enacted for the challenge noted (ID where the challenge is noted)” has a pretty good strike rate for supervisors noting the issue, and leaving it up to me to sort. Which is a good outcome.

Solution first, specific plan, then the problem is like backstory. It also means when I don’t have a solution, they’re more than willing to jump in and help.

Interpretations and outcomes: This is a little different. There are plenty of deliberate techniques in fiction writing that open up interpretation. There are also those that don’t. Writing a magic system, for example; ‘You cannot use more magic than you have or you die’ limits interpretation regarding expenditure, but allows a reader to interpret how that power can be used.

In a business document, that might equate to ‘The budget it X,’ deliberately restricting interpretation on the final amount, but giving plenty of interpretation in the details. As a deliberate statement, this give flexibility to the subject matter experts in the scheduling/financial teams – as an accident, it potentially puts decision making power into the hands of people not expected to make the requisite decisions. Having some level of experience with writing for expectation can help, and practicing that in a business document (even just in an email) can help keep those writing skills on the improve.

The best part? If you’re at the amateur level like my friend and I, then there is more of a chance the skills you are learning – like the ones I’m still trying to wrangle – are of a broader nature. And if you are a pro who has been doing this for decades, then, to be honest, you probably have a more creative way to keep a toe in the writing world

But either way, business writing and fiction writing are still two separate skills that require their own expertise to do well. That doesn’t make the individual techniques mutually exclusive, and it defiantly doesn’t mean that you can’t transfer skills from one to the other. If you can’t write a novel in your own time, developing those fiction techniques in other forms of writing can be just as effective, if you can find the opportunities, and when you do get back to writing, your skillset would have continued to improve.

But the best thing to do when life gets in the way of writing? Self-care. Whether the pressures are from yourself or external sources, the inability to pour from an empty glass still applies. You will not get the best out of yourself, and others won’t get it either unless you look after yourself. That might mean stepping away from pulling all-nighters trying to finish that edit, or accidentally letting a day or two of writing slip because you need that hour a day to not think, or missing that meeting of your local writers club even though you’re afraid they’ll look down on you for missing out (hot tip: they won’t).

Self-care is a thing. Stepping away from dedicated writing might be needed to make time for that. But that doesn’t mean you have to lose touch with writing entirely or worry about skill drop off. There are ways to work it into everyday life that don’t cause extra stress, don’t get in the way of important relationships, and allow you to continue to build the skills. It might not be actively contributing to the completion of your WIP, but it will make sure your writing keeps improving.

Because the tortured artist trope isn’t a requirement for success. Look after yourself and those who rely on you. Then get back to writing. But make sure you get back. You’ll always be welcome.

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Image: https://tenor.com/view/welcome-back-minions-happy-gif-12465313

 

A Kraken Good Time

This month’s Furious Fiction! Proudly brought to you by . . .well, me again. And possibly my first day at sea for a few years. As I’m no longer in the Navy as a full time gig, and with a number of other factors in the background, I don’t get many chances to get out into the Fleet anymore.

But as luck would have it, I managed to get a couple of days while Furious Fiction was on. It may have influenced my entry. This month’s conditions:

1. As normal, 500 words or fewer.

2. As normal, 55 hours.

3. As normal, some strange and out there condition that COMPLETELY THROWS ME FOR IDEAS! Must include the phrases, with one in the first sentence and rest wherever:

  1. ‘shiny, silver’
  2. ‘cold and greasy’
  3. ‘scratched and weather-word’
  4.  ‘sweet and pungent’
  5. ‘ink-stained’
  6. ‘shrill, piercing’

I ended up having a bit more fun with the story as I (quite literally) travelled across the country on planes, trains, and automobiles (and a ship) over the 55 hrs. Of course, that may have also been a sleep-deprivation fueled delerium. Who knows.

Enjoy!

~Nathan

 

The shrill, piercing call of a the bosuns’ call carries the warning through the messes and summons gooseflesh to the arms of even the most seasoned veterans. Three short. Four counts high, one count low and two more short. Scratched and weather-worn steel rattles as equally scarred and weathered guardians of the ship take to arms.

 

The creature seems to know – it’s only ever sighted on a return, and even then only after a bloody war or a sickly season. Times the crew is too stretched to fend it off. Times like now.

 

The sleet makes for a cold and greasy battlefield, but before long for the blood runs slick and hot over the decks. The fight is well and truly underway. Sailors slashing and stabbing, the creature swinging tentacles at the foremast and wrapping others around the fo’c’sle. No-one knows why it attacks. It doesn’t feed from the ships – the shiny, silver beings flitting through the water below take the sustenance of the fight, never the creature itself.

 

Maybe it’s personal. After all, the more ink-stained decks seem to attract more attacks than newer constructions – ironically making the cost of a new ship as unaffordable as it would be safe.

 

But this crew don’t care for intent. They care to survive. The new joiners pray for a miracle, while the older sailors know the battle-rhythm as well as anyone – that is, not well at all. But they know the creature will eventually, if inexplicably, withdraw.

 

Only one fighter seems to relish in the battle. With his once-white apron mow stained beyond recognition and a blotched face covered in soot from the ovens, the Cook laughs as he slashes chunks off the beast, collecting them as they fall.

 

He has plans for after. The meat stores and cooks well – a sweet and pungent flavour he adores. No-one is making plans for an uncertain ‘after’ though. Wishes? Of course. The younger ones only want to be given the chance to renounce their services and live long lives on the monster-free dirt of home. Others draw strength from thoughts of loved ones, and some simply whimper, waiting for the apparent inevitability.

 

Yet eventually, the creature releases them, slithering away towards deeper waters. It leaves as many bodies in the water as on deck.

 

“Come back, yer coward!” The Cook is alone in his disgust, the remainder either leaning heavily on gunwales or collapsing where they stand. The cook has his supplies, but the rest . . . a new mast, repairs to the decking, replacing the unfortunates of the crew. It’ll cost as more than they made.

 

Which means little, if any, profit.

 

Which means a few days ashore, then back to sea

 

Same ink-stained ship, same conditions.

 

The same burning desire for riches, but never the corresponding guarantee.

 

But with the ship in such a state, one thing was certain

 

On their return, the Cook would again replenish his larder. Just as the crew would again be replenishing personnel.

The Atlasian Fate (Glosa)

So this is a really interesting form that I had a lot of fun with. It’s based on a stanza of an existing poem, an writes six line verses that start an end with the sequential line of the original stanza.

As with the others, this is from the perspective of a fictional character. In this case, to draw the relationship with the previous character, this character is a veteran of a future conflict. There is a story that this all comes from, in which another conflict has broken out and the veteran faces the very real risk of becoming a refugee – of once again having war determine her fate. Yeats’ poem is one of my favourites among the limited poems of which I am aware, and I hope I’ve done it at least a bit of justice.

The Atlasian Fate – a Glosa on  William Butler Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’

I know that I shall meet my fate,
Somewhere among the clouds above
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;

– William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate,
Though it leaves a rotten, pungent bait
It’s stranglehold I have long fought
But pull is strong, the leash it taut
And so knowingly I bear the weight
And I know that I shall meet my fate.

Somewhere among the clouds above
The thrum, screech, burn of push and shove
Vying to sit on a higher throne
Than all other they can look down on
The subjects to whom they show no love
Somewhere among the clouds above

Those that I fight I do not hate
Reserved for those that faux debate
To justify their violent intent
Their moral compass, broken, bent
Send us out, then sit back and wait
Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love;
Not the values, the families thereof
If guarding can be what it’s called
For those I love would be appalled
The acts conducted for those above
Those that I guard I do not love.

Friends Underfoot (Triversen)

Before I start, I should explain – my poetry (at least so far) is from the perspective of two fictional characters. In this case, it’s a soldier from Third Ypres.

Also, Triversen – six sentences, each split over three lines – is another form I’ve not done before, so hopefully it works (and isn’t too cringeworthy)

Friends Underfoot

The mud and sludge

and blood and crunch

of frost and friend underfoot.

 

Merry Christmas

I say as I pass

leaving them forever.

 

Advancing always,

the General’s needs and

and his will done.

 

Still we go forwards,

– volunteered or fated? –

until we’re gone.

 

To end all wars is

a noble aim but not

the only end.

 

There is no more mud

sludge, or blood

for frost or underfoot friends.

 

Brothers in Arms (Pantoum)

Brothers in arms eternal, or so we are told

Orders barked at kids, standing awkward in a line

From the day we sign on, until we get old

We are brothers in arms, made so by our time

 

Orders barked at kids, standing awkwardly in a line

Shrill whistle blows, and its over the bags

Brothers in arms, made so by our time

Bleeding no more for country or flags

 

Shrill whistle blows, its over the bags

Brothers falling, running, flying

Bleeding no more for country or flags

My brothers: In my arms, dying

 

Brothers falling, running, flying

From the day we sign on, until we get old

My brothers: In my arms, dying

Brothers in arms eternal, or so we are told

 

So, this is a bit of a different one. Its a pantoum, which is something I discovered about an hour ago and managed to squish together some words for it. It doesn’t always have to rhyme, but it involves rolling lines from previous stanzas into the next ones in a particular way. Why the short time frame? Well, I promised a poem a week, and I’m pretty sure that was nine days ago.

But in all seriousness, the lines have been developing for a while, and have been converted to match both form and the narrative of an upcoming works. The first variation of this poem was far more directed, far more individual. We are told all the time of the ‘brothers in arms’ mentality. We are family. We are there fore each other. From day one of training we are ordered to be so.

But that doesn’t really kick in, not the understanding anyway, until later. For me, it wasn’t until after I left the Navy. On more than one occasion I found myself on the phone or meeting in person for hours on end to simply sit by, completely incapable of doing anything, while they bawled their eyes out or sat in a pretty dark hole otherwise. Some of those friends didn’t win their battles with the myriad of mental health problems, others did and are ridiculously successful in all they do. For me, knowing without question that I couldn’t fix it and would be there anyway, and that they would do the same for me, it where that idea of ‘brothers’ (inclusive sisters and all sibling/family type relationships) really came to the fore.

That original is personal and not something I’m comfortable sharing just yet – not when the other person in it is easily identifiable and probably not comfortable sharing their struggles. But this is a thing for my WWI character to communicate his experience.

Hope + Time

Another Furious Fiction story!

This month was the usual 500 words and 55 hours, with the parameters of containing a train (I pushed the definition of that a little), containing three three-word sentences in a row, and containing something frozen.

Enjoy!

Eyes as blue as the ice walls that surround us stare back at me; another traveller from another time caught in the frost. How long has she been there? Years? Decades? It doesn’t matter, her expression remains. Lost Guardians of the Mountain is what our guide called them before she also succumbed to the cold. But what’s the point of a guardian who can’t help us?

It’s hard to tell whether the frozen woman or the blizzard is sending the chills through me. Is she watching? Can part of her still see us, desperately wishing to warn us off this path? Or is the terrified, hopeless expression simply the one she died with?

I look back over the line of colours trailing into the distance – significantly shorter than we started with. Our Rainbow Train, we initially called it. Everyone thinking about safety and bringing bright colours so we wouldn’t lose each other on the trek. No-one bothering to worry about if we got ourselves lost though. Another chill runs through me, and I pull my hood in closer. I have to go, have to move. Gotta keep the blood flowing and stay warm. So I do. But it doesn’t help, not really. I’m still cold. We’re still lost. I’m still terrified.

And she’s still staring at me; her present is my past. Hopefully not my future.

It’s all the motivation I need. I get up and move, trudging across the ice, and it seems like its working for a time. I’m focused, everyone else seems a blur and I’ve almost forgotten about the burning and tingling in my fingers. My mind is a paradox – a focused haze, oblivious to all but the immediate pursuit of survival, of leading our Rainbow Train to safety.

It feels like an eternity when I finally slow down, weary and exhausted. My limbs feel like they can barely move, though at least I don’t feel cold anymore.

I don’t even feel tired, not really. It isn’t so much an aching as my legs just refusing to work anymore, forcing me to slow down for my own good, so I don’t lose the Train.

I turn to look for them, to make sure in my blind rush I haven’t left them all behind.

Except. . .I can’t. My neck, my head. . .they won’t move. Instead, I’m looking into the eyes as green as the forest I’ll never see again. She’s staring back, the misty wisps of her breath blowing across my face. I stare back, wanting to warn her, to tell her this is not the way! There is nothing for her here but to share my own fate!

She hears nothing. My words remain in my mind, as unable to break free of the ice as I was. I see hope in her eyes, and a fear reflecting my own.

“Who were you?” she whispers to herself.

A Lost Guardian of the Mountains, I think bitterly. My past, my present, and your future.

Also, if you’re wondering about the title, it comes from another one of my favourites – Futility, or The Wreck Of The Titan. I would have called it Futility if that wasn’t taken, so instead its the formula that leads to it.