Displaying items by tag: creative writing
South Australia is the driest state on the driest continent on earth. It hardly rains here at all from November through to May. And where we live – ten kilometers from the nearest town – we’re not on mains water. We have several huge rainwater tanks behind the house in which we store all the rain that comes off the roof during winter, our wet season.
Because water is at such a premium through the summer months we have to make use of every drop, which includes tipping our cleaning water over plants and fruit trees in the garden.
One particular hot summer day, I stepped out our back door in shorts and bare feet to water the potted plants on our patio. Because I tipped my entire bucket into one large pot I wasn’t surprised to hear some of the water overflowing onto the ground behind it.
As I turned away however it struck me that the sound I was hearing wasn’t so much the trickle of water as the ‘shhh’ of reptilian scales over concrete.
Sure enough as I took my next step a five-foot brown snake whipped out from behind the pot and shot directly between my feet. I was already mid-stride - if I shifted my weight I’d fall on the thing. I had no choice but to plant my foot.
I will remember to the day I die the feel of that powerful cord of muscle pinned beneath the arch of my foot. Incredibly the snake never so much as looked back. By the time I came down to earth – having shot an impressive distance into the air – it was disappearing under the groundcover that edged the garden.
As stated in a previous post, my theory is this particular snake was one of the more placid western browns as opposed to the highly aggressive eastern variety that are – thankfully! – less common in our area. It’s the only factor I can think of that would account for its being so forgiving!
Interesting fact: Snakes smell by tasting the air.
By waving its tongue, the snake picks up scent particles and transfers them to a specialized organ on the roof of its mouth. A snake’s tongue is forked so it can determine which direction the scent is coming from, the same way our ears tell us the direction of the sounds we hear.
With just over a month to the release of my romantic thriller, Lying In Wait, I thought I’d write a few blogs about Australia's venomous snakes, as they feature prominently in the story.
In each of my next four posts I’ll either be sharing interesting facts I learned about snakes in researching the book, or personal encounters I’ve had with snakes since living in South Australia - one of which (described below) became the inspiration for the story itself.
All writers draw on personal experience when creating their stories whether they do it consciously or not. Sometimes it's a setting that inspires us, other times a person we meet. Sometimes it's a question we ponder - the classic 'what-if?' In the case of Lying In Wait it was a feeling – one I’d never experienced before.
Our family had recently purchased a 50 acre farm outside of Port Lincoln, South Australia (our home to this day) fulfilling a dream I'd always had of living in the country.
Not long after we moved in I discovered a highly venomous brown snake had taken up residence in our chook run ('chicken coop' for US readers). I'd kept snakes as a hobby back in the States so seeing him there every day when I gathered the eggs never bothered me. It was my husband who pointed out that, while the snake might not be a problem for me, it could be for our five-year-old son who often ran around the lawn with no shoes on.
One morning as I was gathering eggs I saw the snake sunning itself in the yard. I recalled my husband's fears and decided he was right, the snake had to go. But I couldn't bring myself to kill it. Having handled countless snakes growing up, I simply pinned its head, grabbed it firmly behind the neck and picked it up, my intention being to relocate it a safe distance away from our house.
As I stood debating where I might take it, I heard a small voice behind me say, 'Is Mummy going to die now?' I turned to find my husband and son standing at the gate watching me fearfully. My son, who'd been told never to touch a snake, simply assumed, that because I had, my death would follow.
Standing there holding that four-foot brown, hearing my son speak those words, I had a profound experience. I'd known of course this wasn't one of the harmless garter snakes I’d kept in my youth but in that moment the reality hit me with fresh force.
To my astonishment, rather than fear, I felt a sense of exhilaration. I won’t go into too much detail here, as part of this is explained in the story and I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, the feeling wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
In the days that followed, I found myself recalling the experience often and wondering what sort of person might become addicted to such a sensation. As I pondered the question, a character began to form in my mind, along with incidents from her past that helped to shape her personality.
From this I could see a possible scenario that would prove particularlly challenging to such a person, and gradually she drew to her others with the potential for creating further conflict.
In the end that character became Andrea Vaughn, heroine of Lying In Wait. In reading the story you may likely glimpse shadows of the real life experience that created her.
I recently watched a documentary about the comedian Chris Rock. Something he said had a far greater impact on me than I expected and I think it’ll stay with me a long time. Truth be told, I’m hoping it does.
Rock’s a pretty down-to-earth guy, at least that’s how he came across. At one point he was being questioned by reporters about a special he’d done on TV. The interviewers kept asking him things like, ‘What are your hopes for this project? Do you see it taking out any awards? Are you hoping to be nominated for an Emmy?’
Rock seemed a little confused by the questions. As the barrage continued ultimately he shrugged and said, ‘I just want to do good work.’
A calm came over me when I heard those words. Yes, of course! No overthinking it. No lofty, pretentious ambitions. No wanting to grind the opposition to dust. Just the simple desire to do your best.
Implied in the statement (at least to me) is also the understanding you might not always hit the target. That you have no control over how your efforts are received by others. Not everything you do will be equally popular. You just have to give each project your all and hope people like what you do.
Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, has a similar quote he’s famous for: ‘Ignore the noise.’ His way of getting his players to block out all the hype and turmoil that often surrounds them and focus on what really matters – doing their best out on the field.
These two leaders from very different fields are, to me, saying the same thing: It’s not about external validation, but about turning inward; not about competition with others but competition with yourself. The striving to continually improve and be better today at what you do than you were the day before.
‘I just want to do good work.’
I think I just found my new mantra.
In his book, Awaken The Giant Within, Anthony Robbins writes, ‘It’s not the events of our lives, not our environment that determines who we are, but what we believe about our experience.’
That got me thinking…What do I believe about writing and creativity in general? What have I taken from my years of working as both a musician and a writer? The good and the bad, the realities and the misconceptions.
1. Perhaps my number one belief when it comes to any creative endeavor is that talent is greatly over-rated.
I learned long ago from studying violin that consistent practice is far more important. If you say it all comes down to talent and you either have it or you don’t, you’ve surrendered all control of the situation.
Even when it’s there, talent alone is never enough. I’ve seen dozens of gifted people give up when the going got tough because they never had to work for anything before.
2. I believe I haven’t wasted my efforts if I write a book that doesn’t sell. I put it aside and start a new one knowing I can return and revise it later after I’ve honed my skills a bit more. But even if I never revisit the work, I know that writing it moved me closer to my ultimate goal of being the best writer I can be.
3. I believe books sometimes – perhaps even often – get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. The publisher might already have several authors writing books in a similar style. The topic or theme of the book might not be particularly trendy at the moment. Or just the opposite could be true and the market is saturated with books in that genre.
4. Following on from the above scenario I believe it’s possible to submit the same book to the same publisher a year or so later and get a completely different result. (Which – without going into details – has actually happened to me.) A topic that wasn’t marketable last year is hot today. A slot opens up in the editor’s stable when one of their authors moves on or changes genre.
5. I believe luck plays a factor in the success of an author/book but not enough to significantly alter my approach to writing. Yes, there are things you can’t control once your book is ‘out there’. But the same factors determining my book’s success are effecting other books that are successful. So if my book isn’t selling that well I just need to write a better one next time.
6. Having said that however, I believe a good book can be overlooked for a time. What’s more, I believe it’s possible to ‘resurrect’ such a book at a later date so it does find a measure of its deserved success. Some world event suddenly makes the book’s topic more relevant or interesting. (How many more books about viruses were sold during the Covid pandemic I wonder?) World views and market trends change. Themes become relevant that weren’t at the time that book was published.
7. One of my strongest beliefs about writing and the creative life is that passion is contagious – and so is apathy. I love being around passionate people dedicated to their craft. It fills me with hope, makes me consider options I hadn’t thought of, and encourages me to take appropriate risks I might otherwise be hesitant to take.
I steer clear of ‘dabblers’ who only work when they’re in the mood and never stop telling you about the story they’re going to write one of these days. Or the professional who only badmouths their peers and complains about life’s unfairness.
8. In a similar vein I believe there’s something in group energy that affects creativity. I’ve been running writers retreats for twenty years and I’ve had this experience over and over. Eight people sitting in a room together, each hard at work on their own story somehow create a wave of energy that all of us ride. It’s a buzz I look forward to every year. (And our next one’s coming up in 8 weeks! I’m already packing!)
There’s really only one belief I’ve come to have second thoughts about over the years. For a long time I believed that if an author writes a great book, a story that truly touches the hearts of readers, everything else will fall into place – a publisher will want to publish it, readers everywhere will want to read it, it’ll get great reviews, go to multiple printings, etc. All the things writers often worry about take care of themselves.
Though I still believe this to a certain degree I realize that, with so many books on the market these days, it might take a bit in the way of marketing for even a great book to find its readers.
I’m still refining my view on this one. But, for now, that’s my list of writerly beliefs.
Okay I admit I might have a problem – I’ve got enough journals to last a lifetime yet I can’t stop myself buying more!
I rarely use them as soon as I get them. I tuck them away on a shelf in my study until just the right purpose comes along. Each journal is different, you see. The size, the cover, the texture of the paper, the spacing of the lines…all these variables lend themselves to different contents.
Large pages with generous spacing between the lines seem to foster big thoughts and ideas. Whereas small, closely-lined pages are for more intimate, introspection. Glossy, slick paper is for writing fast as when brainstorming, freewriting or developing plot ideas.
Some of these journals have been on my shelf for ages, others have gotten a faster turnover. But sooner or later I’ll get to them all – I’m always looking for another excuse to start a new journal.
I keep a dedicated journal (or two or three) while writing each of my novels
I have a journal for recording my observations about my creative process in general
I have half a dozen notebooks full of story ideas
I have other workbooks where I explore those ideas, shaping them into possible plots
I have a journal called Notes To Self for recording insights – my own and from books I read – into ways to keep myself going when I’m feeling depressed or unmotivated
I have a notebook of ‘Beautiful Sentences’ containing passages from novels I’ve read that I found exquisitely written and from which I hope to learn.
I have a notebook for Words I Often Misspell (Oh boy, is that a big one!)
I have a notebook for stating my goals and my plans for reaching them
I have notebooks for reviewing the books I read – separate ones for novels, short stories, and non-fiction
I have a pocket-sized notebook I carry with me on my morning walks so I can jot down any thoughts that come to me
I have a journal I write in every day about anything that pops in my head
I have a notebook for recording advice on marketing
I have a notebook for recording funny incidents, things that have happened to me or others
I have a book of lists containing all the writing prompts I was ever given (Most Embarrassing Moments, Toys I Played With As A Kid, Pets I’ve had, etc, etc)
I have a journal of interesting characters – descriptions of people I know or encounter
I have a notebook listing my favorite novels, films and their various elements – my favorite heroes, heroines, villains, settings, scenes, relationships, etc.
I have a gratitude journal. A dieting journal. A notebook for recording facts about health. Another for my daily to-do check lists.
I have a dragon’s eye journal for recording my various Tarot readings.
I keep a small notebook in my bedside table for recording dreams I want to remember
Some are handmade and hugely expensive, others are cheap-oh back-to-school specials.
The thirteen leather journals I’ve filled over the years sit lined up on a table in my workroom that I think of as my writing ‘shrine’ – a tribute to all things writing related.
A sickness? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as evidence of a passion for words and the desire to study all that goes into this fabulous craft. One thing I know – holding one of these treasures in my hands always gives my a moment a joy.
And in my defense here are some quotes from other authors on keeping journals:
“Paper has more patience than people.” Anne Frank
“Journaling both demands and creates stillness. It’s a break from the world.’ Ryan Holiday
“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters through your mind.” Jack London
“Journals aren’t for the reader, they’re for the writer. To slow the mind. To wage peace upon oneself.” Ryan Holiday
Leonardo da Vinci kept his notebook on him at all times.