With the launch date for my book, Wildflower Hill, in the US and Canada steadily getting closer, I thought I’d share with my new readers some of the thoughts and feelings that went into the creation of this manuscript in 2009. These entries were first published on my other blog, as my fantasy writer alter ego Kim Wilkins (find out more on my bio page), and have been edited for your convenience.
December 20, 2008
I have taught so many wonderful writing students over the years, and I always seem to know the answers to their problems (sometimes they don’t listen to my solutions… at first). So it embarrasses me greatly to admit that I’ve been struggling with my own writing for close to six months now. Dr Kim can’t even diagnose herself, let alone write an appropriate prescription. I don’t know what brought it on. Perhaps it was publishing book #20 Gold Dust. A milestone–like those milestone birthdays–making me take stock.
The problem is, I have a surfeit of Really Good Ideas. And because I write across so many genres now, I don’t know quite where to throw my energy. Fab idea for children’s book time-travelling series. Cool idea for Brisbane goth YA novel. Desperate keen to write a chicklit all-girl band story. But I’ve narrowed it down to two:
An adult historical fantasy novel, working title “The Garden of the Mad King”, set in an alternative version of Anglo-Saxon England, about five daughters of a tribal warlord and the different paths they take when their father grows too ill to rule.
A Kimberley Freeman saga, working title “The Field of Clouds” (Wildflower Hill), about a poor immigrant woman in Tasmania in the 1920s who goes about creating a fashion empire; and her grand-daughter in the present–fleeing a broken relationship and career in London–who inherits her grandmother’s house and all her hidden secrets.
I really can’t decide which one first. On the one hand, the fantasy novel speaks to my soul on so many levels. Get back to the magic, Kim, it says. But the work involved is huuuuge, and there’s 2 books in there I just know it (though trying to deny it to self). On the other hand, the Kimberley Freeman beckons like a crisp new beach-read novel. Let’s have fun, it says Let’s lie on the beach and get lost in it! Frocks! Shoes! Glamour! (Though, admittedly, hard to type on the beach).
There are other pros and cons to both, some involving contractual obligations, some involving the ongoing viability of my membership to the SF community, some involving how tired I always am because my children wake before six every morning.
But the solution made itself clear to me just the other night. I know it sounds like madness, but listen to this.
I’m going to write… BOTH! Yes, I’m going to write the first chapter of each over the next few weeks. Then if I still can’t choose, I’ll write the second chapter of each. And so on. I’ve always sworn I couldn’t write two books at once, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And I do have the luxury of both a well-paying part-time job and a stay of execution on an imminent deadline.
Of course, it could all be a disaster and, if it is, you’ll hear it here first. But I think the most important thing of all is that I write something. I get very grumpy if I’m not writing and if that was you I shouted at when you took my spot at Toowong Village car park last week I’m very sorry. But I did have my blinker on first.
Wish me luck.
December 26, 2008
I’ve been plagued by constant headaches for four weeks. My doctor assures me they are most likely “tension headaches”. What could I be tense about?
I have started both stories. I have planned the first few chapters of each, done a little research, and written an opening paragraph for each. Here are the first drafts (subject to change at whim):
Blood. It smelled like the promise of something thrilling, as much as it smelled like the thrumming end of the adventure. It smelled like her father when he came home from battle, even though he had bathed before he took her in his arms. Still the metal tang of it lingered in his hair and beard, and, as she smashed her skinny, child’s body against his thundering chest in welcome, he smelled to her only of good things.
Beattie Blaxland had dreams. Big dreams. Fashions and fabrics, riches and respect. In her bed, rolled out on the floor of her parents’ room in their finger-chilling tenement flat, she imagined in vivid, yearning detail a future version of herself: poised, proud, almost regal. She had never imagined—nor believed it possible—that she would find herself pregnant to her married lover at the age of only eighteen.
Apart from the fact that they both start with “B”, they don’t really have much in common, do they? So far it’s not hard work because I’m not really taking it seriously. My friend, writer Grace Dugan, who is studying medicine, showed me how to find my “blind spot”. You hold your index finger in front of you and look straight ahead. Then, as you move your finger outwards, you eventually hit an area that your eye can’t see. Your finger disappears. Well, that’s where all my writing problems are at the moment, safely tucked away in my blind spot. It’s quite nice; like being drunk on champagne. Quite nice except for the headaches, that is.
January 21, 2009
You may remember that I have been working on both the fantasy novel and a Kimberley Freeman novel for a few weeks. We did a farmstay back near the glaciers a few nights ago that really changed everything. As I was sitting out on the front deck, looking at the mountains and the horses and the sheep, it was as though a vein opened up in my imagination and all the images started pouring out. I tightly plotted the first few chapters and then decided I actually had to write something, and I’ve been adding little bits ever since. Then, today, I had a little nap while my daughter slept, and woke up with a prologue complete in my head: and I love it. So Wildflower Hill wins, and I will save my Mad King for later in the year.
February 13, 2009
Have you tried first, second, and third? No, not bases. Persons? I’m talking viewpoint, not teenage sex (that should get me a few extra hits this week).
After feeling despondent about my first chapter of my new book, I had a 3am epiphany about what was wrong with it. I had written it in 3rd person (“she did this, she did that”) when I really should have written it in 1st person (“I did this, I did that”). All right, it wasn’t so much an epiphany as a strong suspicion, and the only way to test if I were right was to rewrite it. I balked at this of course. I am Dr Decisive when it comes to writing (usually, until book #20 stole my mojo), so it was very painful for me to have to go back to the drawing board over such a small mechanical thing.
But wait, not so fast. Not such a small mechanical thing at all. Not just changing the pronouns. Because I chose to rewrite rather than just edit, I found that the moment I switched into first person, good stuff started to happen.
You see, the usual argument over whether to choose first or third person is simple, and goes like this:
First person = direct & engaging, but limited access
Third person = great access, but loss of directness
Second person = only crazy people write this way
I’ve never had much trouble creating a direct, emotional connection in third person, so it’s my usual preference. But on this occasion, I found that using first person forced me to account more fully for the character’s feelings and motivations; that I couldn’t gloss over anything anymore; that I had to be specific. Compare for yourself:
Beattie Blaxland had dreams. Big dreams. Fashions and fabrics and fortune. In her hurley bed, rolled out on the floor of her parents’ room in their finger-chilling tenement flat, she imagined in vivid, yearning detail a future version of herself: poised, proud, almost regal. She had never imagined-nor believed it possible-that she would find herself pregnant to her married lover at the age of only eighteen.
I had dreams. Big dreams. Not the confused patchwork dreams that invade sleep. No, these were the dreams with which I comforted myself before sleep, in my hurley bed rolled out on the floor of my parents’ finger-chilling tenement flat. Vivid, yearning dreams. A life of fashion and fabrics; and fortune of course. A life where the dismal truth about my dismal family could never touch me again. One thing I never dreamed was that I would find myself pregnant to my married lover, just before my nineteenth birthday. All through February, I obsessively counted the weeks and counted them again, bending my mind backwards, trying to make sense of the dates. My stomach flipped at the smell of food, my breasts grew tender and, by the first of March, I had finally come to believe that a child-that Henry MacConnell’s child-was growing inside me.
Please don’t take this to mean that I think all stories should be written in first person: far from it. First person has massive pitfalls, especially for the inexperienced writer (where every first person character winds up sounding exactly the same as the others). But this actual switch of perspective has me feeling like I’m inside the story well and truly now, that it’s possible to write it well and on time, and that I will enjoy the company of my latest imaginary friend.
March 16, 2009
Recovered from my illness with a new determination not to drink any Coke Zero and generally to live healthier. And, after a long time away, returned to my story. To my 23 000 words. Only to find that a good percentage of those words were the wrong ones.
I can thank my magnificent literary agent for pointing out the obvious to me; that the first six chapters were bristling with extra scenes, ideas, and characters. I finished the phone call to her psyched up to do the cutting, rewrite the new, better, tighter, more engaging scenes, and return to the new writing with focus and vigour. But having just cut 7000 words from the MS, I feel rather despondent. It’s demoralising to see that word count at the bottom corner of the screen fall below 20 000– and well below 20 000, at that– when my imagination had prepared me to be at 40 000 or so this week. I have a research trip to Tasmania booked in a few weeks, and wanted to be vastly more advanced in the MS by then. It’s the literary equivalent of walking miles in the hot sun to the store, only to find you’ve left your purse at home. Except more exhausting. And there’s more of a longing for alcohol. And a tad more self-loathing.
So, once more into the breach, my friends. Onward to the new and improved 20 000 mark, and so on and so on. As Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”
April 3, 2009
It works like this. I get up in the early morning, while it’s still a little dark. I tiptoe past the kids’ room and shut myself in my study.
Then I start writing. And words come. They don’t sit dammed up in my brain behind that invisible forcefield. They come out of my head, down my arms, into my fingers, out onto the keyboard, and appear on the screen. They come in their hundreds and sometimes in their thousands. Then I stop at breakfast time and get on with my day.
I’ve always been an early-morning writer, and I’m so pleased to be back in this space. Having suffered horrifically through the editing process (see below) it’s such a wonderful feeling of liberty to be writing forward again. The settings and characters are coming alive in my imagination, seeming more real every day. I have certainly written my way back in to this story.
Next weekend I’m off on a research trip in Tasmania. This is the first time I’ve researched Australian history for a story, and I’ve surprised myself by how fascinated I am. I managed to get hold of a book called E. A. Hoppe’s Australia, which is a collection of photographs taken over one year (1930) by a German photographer, and I’ve spent many hours poring over the pictures, soaking up the feeling, looking for those little details that will add the feeling of “realness” to the story. In most photos, there are people looking back at me, and I’m trying to imagine them in those moments. What they were thinking, feeling; how each of their senses were engaged in that split-second when the shutter-eye closed and opened again. Slowly, but surely, I am falling under this story’s spell. And it’s wonderful.
April 11, 2009
I am at home. I am not in Tasmania, where I was supposed to be. Instead, I am stealing a few minutes while the children watch a Yo Gabba Gabba DVD, to catch my thoughts.
Astrid came down midway through the week with a violent gastro bug, and she was certainly not fit to travel, so we have cancelled the whole trip. The cancelled trip means that my crucial research will not get done; this means that my plans for my novel are in turmoil.
Workwise, I’ll try to turn this week into a positive. Ordinarily it’s impossible for me to write out of order, but perhaps I’ll just have to do that, and save the scenes that need the most research until a time when I can get away to Tassie. I’ve pulled out my notebook, and I’m going to break the story down, scene by scene, and see if I can set myself the goal of writing 15000 words this week (thus reaching 40000) by just plugging away with what I can do, rather than moaning about what I can’t.
I can hear a little squeaky laugh from the other room; she’s getting better. What is there to be miserable about?
May 14, 2009
Today, something interesting happened. Hurrah! I crossed the 60K threshold. Given I am planning for the book to run to 120K, that means I’m officially halfway. Some of the writing is horrendous, I must confess, but just yesterday as I was telling my mum about the story, I got a real sense of what the book is all about. I can’t wait to get to the end, so I can go back in and tweak all the things that need tweaking, make it all sit straight and work. Put simply, it’s a story about a girl who thought her grandmother was a nice old lady, and discovers–when she inherits her grandmother’s old house in Tasmania–that Gran was a lot more complex than originally thought. It has a bit of mystery, a bit of romance, and a lot of sheep. Lol!
June 22, 2009
On Friday night, I finished Wildflower Hill after a marathon 9000-words-in-9-hours writing effort (and if you were part of my FB cheersquad, I thank you very much!). I haven’t blogged until now because I simply haven’t had any words left in me. But now I’m here in the post-book vacuum, reflecting on the immediate aftermath of the book. I feel:
I can’t yet enjoy all the things I said I’d enjoy when I was done: reading–meh, gaming–meh, drinking a bottle of Veuve Clicquot–well, okay, that was fun but only while the bubbles were still popping.
BUT, the book is finished and that is a relief. Even if I doubt it now (and I don’t always… sometimes I think it might be quite good) I’ve got a complete story to work on: to massage and to coax into shape. And the promise of something new is always a good way to console oneself. Goodbye number 21, hello number 22.
July 25, 2009
I’ve just finished my first edit of Wildflower Hill and the whole process went really well. Now it’ll go off to my agent, who may have more to add, and then to my publishers, who will no doubt have much for me to fix.
For those of you embarking on a self-edit, the most important thing to remember is to be methodical and detached. You can get swamped in an edit very easily. I always tell my students that it is like autopsying a puppy. If you can’t be methodical and detached, then more puppies may die. Rule number one is to have a printed copy of the MS, and go through it first with a pen, marking what’s wrong. Don’t try to fix it on the first pass, just make a note in the margin about what’s wrong. (Okay, if you know the perfect substitute word then put it in, but in general don’t fix, just mark). I do this, all the while imagining that I’m not the person who has to fix it. Makes it far less overwhelming (though a little more pathological).
Then take your MS back to your computer, and start at the beginning making the changes you’ve noted. Do the easy ones right away (e.g. typos, deletions, small rewrites) in order. The ones that are a bit harder or need a bit more thought, mark them with a note (I used the “review” menu in Word for Vista) and keep moving on. Once you get to the end of the MS, you can count up your notes. For this MS, I originally had 63. Then you can work on screen, methodically fixing them one at a time. They don’t have to be in order: fix the easy ones first so you get a sense of satisfaction, seeing the number grow smaller and smaller.
For those big structural issues, isolate the sections that need to be worked on. For example, in this MS I had a love affair that felt a bit rushed. I isolated the problem to a particular group of nine chapters, then just concentrated on reading through those, weaving in an extra line here and there, and then writing one extra scene.
What always surprises me about editing (pleasantly, as I’m usually daunted and avoidant about doing the work) is how little is actually needed to effect big changes. I had a huge motivation issue with one of my characters: she does something that seemed awkward and implausible. So, again, I isolated the group of chapters that were bothering me and made a note for every scene on “how is she feeling about her current situation?”. It took minutes to identify that her feelings were inconsistent, and minutes again to excise the internalisations that didn’t fit and replace them with ones that did.
It’s impossible to know if the MS is working now. Ideally I’d put it away for a few months and come back to a complete read-through, and I don’t have the luxury of that time. The next person who reads it will have to tell me if it’s okay. So this is a good stage to seek feedback from trusted writing buddies. Certainly, the next pass will involve finessing the expression a bit more.
Right, on to the changing of the notebooks. All of this paperwork and research is being filed, and my next story’s notebook is making its way onto my desk. Onwards.
August 29, 2010
So. It hath happened. Wildflower Hill has hit the shelves. My bestie took this photo at the airport, so I have evidence.
There’s always an awkward feeling of vulnerability when I have a book published (yes, even after 21 occasions). It’s almost impossible to explain but let me try. Imagine you are at the supermarket, and you look down and realise you are wearing only your underwear. People may be appreciative of you in your underwear, but nonetheless you feel exposed. Later, when you go home, you try not to think about it, but your mind returns to it again and again. What have people seen of you? What do they now know or presume about you, from that moment of exposure?
You may remember Wildflower Hill from such tortured posts [as shown above]. But now it is a real book in the world and real people will read it and they will have their opinions. Oh yes they will. Some of them will write and tell me their opinions, which is always nice if they like the book; but is a form of torture if they don’t (not because I can’t handle criticism, but because the accepted wisdom is that one does not write back snarly emails) (oh, and I lied: I also can’t handle criticism). Also, there is book promotion to do. This involves being interviewed and having my photograph taken. Do you like having your photograph taken? Yes, well, now imagine that the photographs are printed in public places before you even know whether or not they make you look like a half-witted yet slightly lascivious Amish milkmaid.
All of it makes me want to crawl under a rock and hide, but there is still that little part of me that hopes that people will read my book and like it, and like the people in it. Because for a little while, when I was writing it, they meant an awful lot to me.