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So I’m working on a novel …

I’ve been meaning to write a post about my novel for a little while—if only to have something to refer people to when they ask me about it and I don’t have time to respond.

But I also find it a little uncomfortable writing about it. I’m uncomfortable for several reasons: firstly, it’s still in progress and who knows whether it will ever see the light of publication? Secondly, there are cultural issues involved that make the whole thing a little sensitive, and while I don’t quite agree that I have no right to tell this story the way I am, I am conscious of the issues and how complicated the whole thing is. Thirdly, I’m not sure I have more to say other than, “I’m writing a novel and it’s about this”.

 But anyway. Here’s a post about my novel. Enjoy.

Genesis

To talk about this novel, I have to talk about another one first—one that I started and then stopped, because it wasn’t quite working.

It was during the period Ben and I were going through a trial separation (which is a story I am not going to ever blog about, but I’m throwing it out there because it happened, we are all the stronger for it happening, and just as it’s helpful to know that other people also struggle with depression and anxiety, it’s also helpful for married people to know that other people’s marriages are sometimes difficult and complicated, but that’s not the end of the world for the relationship).

So as I said, it was during the period when we were going through a trial separation. I was quite depressed, and one of the ways I coped with my depression was to lose myself in daydreaming. I had this idea for a fantasy story about a girl chosen by a magician to become his special helper because they shared a magical connection, and I thought it might work as a novel.

I started writing bits and pieces of it while I was working on my novella (which is very close to seeing the light of publication if only I had the time and energy to do the necessary revisions and get it out there). The setting started off as being very European medieval fantasy. But then I read someone on Twitter bemoaning the fact that most fantasy was European and medieval, and couldn’t writers conceive of something else? And something in me shifted.

Mugen and Jin from “Samurai Champloo”.

Around the same time, I had been revisiting one of my favourite anime series, Samurai Champloo, which was made by the same director as Cowboy Bebop. It had just come to Netflix and even though I own the series on DVD, it’s so much more convenient to stream things instead of fiddling with players and discs. (NB: It’s no longer up on Netflix, but you can watch 25 episodes on this YouTube playlist plus episode 26 with an English dub.)

The series is about a teenage girl named Fuu who enlists two rogue swordsmen—Mugen from the Ryukyu islands and Jin, who is a rōnin (i.e. a master-less samurai) to protect her and help her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. The three have little love for one another, but as they travel along the length of Japan and have all sorts of crazy adventures along the way, they develop a bond—something deeper than friendship, something forged of promises and loyalty. A lot of people find the ending anti-climactic, but I think it’s because their expectations are wrong: it’s one of those series that is more about the journey than the destination. The more I’ve watched it, the more I’ve come to appreciate the story and why it ends the way it does.

Edo Japan

Anyway, one of things I really love about it is that it’s set during the Edo/Tokugawa period—that section of Japanese history 1603 and 1867 when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. (Though on reflection, Samurai Champloo probably set more towards the end of that period as it has an entire episode about American baseball.) I find the Edo period fascinating: it was a time of peace as the country had been more or less united under the shogunate; it was a time of prosperity as peace and social stability led to both an economic and a population boom; it was a time of great social change when the ruling classes—the samurai and the nobility—were on the decline while the merchants were becoming more prosperous; and it was a time of artistic flourishing when a number of traditional Japanese arts and crafts really came into their own. (It should also be noted that it was a time of isolation as well, because Japan shut its borders to everyone except the Dutch East India Company. Samurai Champloo episode 6 has an interesting story about a character who worked for them.)

In my depression that year, another thing I found myself doing was travelling to Japan in my imagination. I have only been there once—in January of 1993 when I was 15 and it was bitterly cold. I remember visiting Tokyo Disneyland when it was snowing; seeing people wearing face masks in the subway because they either had colds or wanted to avoid getting colds; seeing beautifully dressed girls in kimonos in one of Tokyo’s gardens (though I don’t remember why they were all dressed up); going up Mount Fuji and marvelling at how I could see one side of the country to the other; staying at an inn known for its hot spring but not understanding why that was significant; waking up the day we were supposed to go to Kobe and learning about the earthquake, and thinking about the guy on the bullet train the day before who had been going there and wondering if he was okay (I don’t actually remember how I knew he was going to Kobe; maybe he disembarked there before we did?); and catching the bullet train back to Tokyo. I would very much like to go to Japan again, and I had started saving up for a trip when COVID hit. (And then we bought a house, which decimated the fund, so I’ve had to start again.)

Somehow those two things—my novel and my love of Edo Japan—coalesced and I decided to make the setting of my fantasy novel Edo-inspired.

Of course, the moment I decided to do that, I ran into a whole bunch of world-building problems. It wasn’t that I wanted to be slavishly faithful to the Edo era; it was more that as I researched the period, I started to see how different aspects of Japanese culture influence and determine other things. For example, geography and climate: Japan is an island nation that sits on the ring of fire, which means that it is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. (I confess I did know until a couple of years ago that Mount Fuji is a volcano.) Its weather ranges from extreme snow in the winter to soul-crushing heat and humidity in the summer. This is why traditional Japanese houses are built in a particular way—to facilitate air flow and temperature regulation when it’s hot, with the ability to close everything off when it’s cold (though the Japanese are more into space heating with hearths in the floor, instead of heating the entire house). Houses are usually made of wood, which makes them a little bit more flexible in the event of an earthquake, but wood also means that fire is a major hazard, and often it is expected that structures will be rebuilt after a suitable period of time has elapsed.

The more I researched (as much as one can via the internet, and I certainly feel very lucky to have the whole of the world wide web at my fingertips for this, though it makes me feel a lot like armchair traveller Ann Radcliffe), the more I would come across little details that were essential to my story, but that were of no interest to historians. Sometimes I was able to unearth answers after trawling the internet in different ways. (For example, did Japanese sailors use hammocks on board? The answer is no, but you’ll have to read pages 678-679 of the book I linked to to find it.) Sometimes I couldn’t find the answer—even if it was for something that I thought was rather simple. (For example, how often did Japanese people do laundry in the Edo era? Given that cleaning a kimono involves taking it apart, washing it and sewing it back together again, I take it they wouldn’t have been doing that very often. But their undergarments? Absolutely no idea. But I’d guess surely they would change those almost every day, given the Japanese penchant for bathing, which is linked to Shinto and ideas about pollution.)

I know, I know: it’s fiction. It’s fantasy. I could have just made stuff up. But I kind of liked that the research was leading me in all sorts of place to all sorts of things I had never considered before—which is why I stuck with it as an exercise in world-building. Japan is different in just about every regard to the western culture I had grown up. And yet there were parts of it that felt familiar to me because Japan borrowed so much from Chinese culture—Buddhism and Confucianism, of course, but also their writing system, their style of dress, and even aspects of their cuisine and handicrafts. At one point, I read something about Japanese history and was struck by a line saying something about how Japanese society back then was obsessed with Chinese culture. It shocked me because I have never had much interest in Chinese culture, despite that being my heritage. But seeing China through the lens of Japan changed all that. My appreciation for Chinese culture and history, and even my own Asianness, started to grow. (It also helped that around the same time, I discovered xanxia dramas.) Even so, my relationship with my Chineseness is an ongoing journey that I’m not sure I can write about at the moment. (Or ever …)

The thing is, I know that me writing about Japanese culture (even if it’s heavily disguised as fantasy) will be seen as problematic. I’m not Japanese; I’m Chinese. Japanese history and culture is not mine. Furthermore, the relationship between China and Japan is difficult and fraught with traumatic history. (I don’t know how true it is, but I heard that my own grandfather, who died before I was born, became an alcoholic sometime after the Japanese invaded Hong Kong.) The whole situation is complicated and messy.

However, one thing I admire greatly about the Japanese is their ability to borrow things from other cultures—not just Chinese, but Portuguese and even American—and make them their own. I hope they will not mind me doing likewise.

Boring Fantasy Novel

Back to the novel—not the current one, but the other one—the one I called “Boring Fantasy Novel” as a joke when I participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that year. (This is log line I would tell people: “Magician samurai at magic school who need to learn to work together in order to defend their kingdom from an invading empire”. That makes it sound less boring.)

Going through a trial separation meant that I had more child-free time on my hands, because Ben would take the girls to his place every Friday and drop them back on Saturday. I had always wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo, but every year had seemed like a bad time to do it. With more time and a project I actually wanted to work on, participating that year was a no-brainer. And as you can see from the above certificate, I did actually finish.

The following year—2019—I worked on Boring Fantasy Novel—the story about the girl who was chose to become a seer’s helper or familiar. But it branched: initially I had approached it as a single narrator story told from the point of view of the girl, who I named Sia after the musician Sia Furler. (It’s not a particularly Japanese name—it comes from Old Norse—but it is kind of fitting for Reasons that would probably take another blog post.) She lives in the kingdom of Archaia (also not a particularly Japanese name. Reasons. Also, I just liked the name [it’s a comics publisher]) where magic is a part of the natural world. But only the seers—the magic-users—can see it and manipulate it to their ends.

As my cast multiplied, I decided to adopt two other point-of-view characters: a boy named Taika (who is a seer, but not the one who chooses Sia) and a girl named Piper (who is also a seer, but also not the one who chooses Sia). Both Taika and Piper are friends with Caspian, the seer who does choose Sia. You’d think Caspian as a POV character would be the obvious choice, but I didn’t want to make him one. I was drawn to Taika and Piper instead—again, for Reasons.

Anyway, I kept going with Boring Fantasy Novel, telling the story from three points of view—Sia, Taika and Piper. I’d never written a multi-POV novel before, and I dealt with it by switching between the three of them in a set pattern—Sia, Taika, Piper; Sia Taika Piper, etc.

Then I realised I had completely underestimated how much story would fill one novel. That’s what happens when you have three POVs and plot arcs for each of them! I had a rough outline and enough story to fill a trilogy. But what I was calling Book #1 waaaaaaay too long: I hit 80,000 words and realised I wasn’t done. I thought it would work if I split what I was calling Book #1 into two books, thus making the trilogy a quadrilogy. The thing with doing that is that the first half didn’t quite work as a self-contained book. Furthermore, when I started workshopping sections of it with my writing group the following year, I realised from their feedback that it really wasn’t working—that each POV didn’t stand on its own—and that I had to do something quite drastic.

Of course, my solution was to run. I was 67,000 words through what became Book #2 when I did it, and it was because I was writing a Taika chapter and realised I needed more of his backstory.

The Taika Novel

It was around this time the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia—about the second quarter of 2020. In between supervising home learning and trying to do my job, I wasn’t writing much of anything. I was trying to keep it up, but it was fragmented and rough, and I found I was using the time to work things out. I wrote about Taika and Piper’s backstories, trying to trace the trajectory of who they were up to the beginning of Boring Fantasy Novel. I thought it would just be a useful exercise in character development. But as I looked over what I’d written, I realised that Taika’s story could work as a standalone novel on its own. (Piper’s could work, but it’s not quite there yet.) Boring Fantasy Novel/Quadrilogy wasn’t working, and that was partly because I was trying to juggle three POVs. I decided I should learn to walk before I tried to run and attempt just one POV instead.

So earlier this year, I started on the Taika Novel. It starts a few years earlier than Boring Fantasy Novel and it is about Taika, a fifteen-year-old boy who was born into the lowest social class in the kingdom of Archaia (which is analogous to the Burakumin in Edo Japan; that’s something else that might get me in trouble). Taika is discovered to be a seer and made to enrol in the Seer Academy. He must learn to master his powers and make his situation work for him, despite the hostility and obstacles he faces (the Seer Academy is full of aristocrats, you see). The alternative is execution, because the Crown can’t have untrained magic users running around; the law says that everyone who is discovered to be a seer must serve the King and the Kingdom.

I describe the Taika Novel as being a “small” story that’s not aiming to do much. As I’ve been writing it, though, I’ve been drawing correlations between Taika’s story and mine—connections that were largely unconscious until I realised how they were influencing the material. Chief among them is that feeling of entering an existing situation where everyone else has been there a while and is familiar with the way things work, while you feel out of place and don’t know anything. Taika doesn’t know how to read or write, but everyone else at Seer Academy does because they all come from the upper class and had private tutors. It’s a lot like when I was six and I moved from to Canada to Australia. I struggled a lot at school. In Canada, I had completed Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2 at a bilingual school where lessons were taught in English and French. But I didn’t know how to read, and when we arrived in Australia, my age meant that I was placed in Year 1 halfway through. (We arrived in July.) I went from being at the level of my peers to being far below. I have a very clear memory of standing up in front of the class, being asked to write “jump” on the board and not being able to get past the letter “j” while all the other kids yelled the answer. For the rest of that year, I had to sit at a desk right beside the teacher, who set me special work to help me catch up. And for the longest time, I thought of myself as not being particularly smart—until I started excel academically and discovered what I was really capable of.

As I wrote in this post, I’ve outlined the whole novel and written bits of it. I’m currently writing the rest of it rather badly and I’m almost halfway. I’d really like to finish the whole thing this year, but that will depend a lot on the pandemic, us coming out of lockdown and the girls returning to school.

What of the Boring Fantasy Novel Quadrilogy? Well, I do actually have a plan for that, but it’s looking more like two more stand-alones plus a trilogy, according to my current rough outlines. None of what I wrote will be wasted. In fact, many of the characters in that are in the Taika Novel; I’m just writing about them when they were younger.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Learn to walk before I run. Let’s finish the Taika novel first.

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Write like a 3D printer

Writing (pre-pandemic)

This is how I used to write before the pandemic: I organised my part-time job and my life so that I had very set writing mornings—Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Depending on the day, I would walk the girls to school for drop-off, go to a local café, and write and have a hot drink in the half hour before the library opened, then move to the library where, if I was lucky, I got my favourite desk. If I left it too late, my favourite desk was snapped up by an elderly Chinese man who liked to read the papers and mumble very loudly under his breath while reading. He’d stay until baby rhyme time began—during which I would be surrounded by parents and infants and would be trying to drown out the librarian who couldn’t sing in tune with very loud music piped through my headphones.

After baby rhyme time, I would continue writing and often try to stave off hunger pains/the need to go to the loo (as the library one was terrible as they shared it with the food establishments around it and you needed to ask them for a key). Then I’d walk home when I couldn’t leave it any longer, often still thinking about my novel.

Or some mornings, I’d go do my gym class and then sit for a couple of hours with my laptop in the food court of the shopping mall above the gym while people came and went around me.

Doing this, I managed to clock eight to ten hours of writing a week.

Writing (mid-pandemic)

Of course, COVID changed all that. During lockdown, I couldn’t go to cafés or libraries or food courts. I tried to make do with my little desk—or even my balcony while the weather was warm. But I usually couldn’t manage more than half an hour to an hour, and that was on days when Ben was able to take the girls out for exercise.

I expected that: we were all going through a hard time after all, and sharing a two bedroom flat with three others who needed to do home learning as well as paid work was stressful enough. I purposefully kept the bar low.

But then things began to open up again and we were allowed back into cafés and food courts (though not always libraries). I’d go occasionally, but I was more aware of the risks (even when masked). It was safer not to risk mingling germs with others.

And then we moved out of our two bedroom flat into a house—a house where, for the very first time, I got to have my very own a study. With a door. (It’s not a lockable door, but it’s a door! And if I really wanted, I suppose I could pay someone to put a lock on it, but a Do Not Disturb sign would probably do just as well if I could be bothered.)

But even with a study, I’m not being as productive as I was pre-pandemic. It’s easier to write when I’m not at home, away from the distractions of housework, parenting and the endless To Do list. The pandemic isn’t over, and while public health guidelines regarding masks and indoor spaces are still in flux (particularly at the moment), I’m still not completely comfortable with resuming my old writing haunts.

I’ve tried to set up my study so that it will work for writing: I have the two desks (one for writing; one for the paid job, and they face different directions). But I wonder if doing my writing in the same space as my work is having a detrimental effect. (I say this while being very conscious of how spoiled I am.)

It’s just that often I find myself doing a lot of trying to write and not actually writing.

Writing (or rather, not writing)

Part of it is my perfectionism: I have been known to spend hours and hours agonising over how to craft the right sentences and paragraphs for dialogue and description. Transitions are often a huge problem for me as it isn’t always clear how to move naturally from point A to point B in a scene. In addition, I am always falling down research wormholes, because my novel is set in a fantasy version of Edo-era Japan (which I did because one, I LOVE Edo-era Japan, but also two, it’s an exercise in world-building; there’s nothing like modelling your setting on a real historical period to make you curious about why things were done the way they were. Which reminds me, I should write some novel research posts sometime …)

After a couple of months of near-zero productivity, I decided I needed to change my approach. I’d been listening to Antony Johnston’s Writing and Breathing podcast (in which Antony Johnston interviews writers of different backgrounds and mediums about their origin story and their process) and several authors talked about how they wrote like 3D printers, building up a scene one layer at a time. Some would start with the dialogue, then add the dialogue tags (“he said, she said,“ etc.), then the action, then the setting/description, plot stuff, etc.

It reminded me a lot of a conversation I had with Louie Joyce at the last Australian Comic Arts Festival: I had been talking to him about making the switch from comics to prose, and how sometimes it helped to write what writers often call a “zero draft” first—a word sketch of a scene that might include bits of dialogue and action, but also the main point of the scene and the central conflict and any other important bits. Louie compared the zero draft to the thumbnailing stage in comics—when you’re sketching out how characters should look, how the story should be told in panels and what shots to use. He pointed out you’re often making key creative decisions and doing the bulk of the creative “work” in this phase, as when it comes to inking, colouring and lettering, the most important work has already been done—even at this stage when everything is still rough and raw.

I liked that analogy immediately and it helped change the way I thought about writing. It sounds obvious, but I fell into the trap of thinking that not all writing is “writing”. That is, “writing” does not simply consist of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard; “writing” also encapsulates the thinking and the scribbling and the sudden burst of inspiration you get when you’re on the loo and you have to race to capture it before you forget. “Writing” means the toiling and the crafting of sentences and tearing out your hair while you search for that elusive perfect word. And “writing” is the redrafting and the reshaping and the reworking you do in response to feedback as you whittle away the thing, trying to get it as good as you can make it.

(Related to the zero draft/thumbnailing/writing being difficult thing: recently I stumbled across the excerpt from an interview with John Swartzwelder, who used to be a lead writer on The Simpsons:

I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it. (Source)

Just quietly, I love the concept of a “crappy little elf”!)

My point is, it’s all writing. Why did I think it wasn’t?!

And the point for me was that as my current way of working wasn’t serving me, why not try something different? Why not approach writing prose the way I and my collaborators approach making comics?

Writing, writing, writing

The thing with this approach to writing is that there are no helpful metrics by which to measure progress. It’s more impressive to say, “I am now 50,000 words through this project!” compared with, “I’ve just finished sketching out the whole book!” I suppose you could do it a bit like the comics job sheet that Antony Johnston uses and make up your own boxes to tick off.  But that doesn’t quite work for me.

Neither does time: I tracked my hours for a while using Toggl Track (which I use to log my work hours), so that’s how I know I used to write between eight and ten hours a week. Yet I can easily spend a lot of time at my desk, getting sucked into a YouTube research vortex and not actually writing anything.

So how do I measure progress instead? (Well, aside from divorcing my self-esteem from my productivity.)

The answer is I’ve become a little less fixated on it. I am trying to be content with any forward movement, no matter how small. So with my current novel project (which I am calling “The Taika novel project” after the lead character), I’ve outlined the whole thing. I have a chapter by chapter and scene by scene breakdown that I think works (though I won’t know for sure until I write it). It will clock in at about 16 chapters (and hopefully at least 75,000 words, which is about standard for a YA novel). Chapters 1-2 are in early draft form, and have even been workshopped with my writing group. Chapters 3-4 are at zero draft stage. I’m currently working on the zero draft for chapter 5 using Tansy Rayner Roberts’ 100 words per day for 100 days challenge (see From Baby Brain to Writer Brain: Writing through a world of parenting distraction; so far, I’m up to a 42-day streak). It’s all very slow-going.

That’s okay. I keep reminding myself it’s better than nothing. The fact that I am writing anything during this period of creative depression is a small miracle. I’ll go back over it, and go back over it again, 3D printing up and up and up. One day I’ll have a book.

One day.

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Convertibly cute

Around the time we moved, I stopped knitting for about six months.

This is A Big Deal. Anyone who knows me knows that I always have something on the go, and when I don’t, I’m like an addict, chomping at the bit for my next fix. I need to keep my hands busy because it helps me keep my mind focused, and one of the nice things about knitting is that it’s not being faced with a blank canvas or yarn; you’re building on what other people have made and following/riffing on their directions. So it’s creativity with scaffolding.

Still, moving put a spanner in all of that. It wasn’t because I had to pack up all my needles and yarn (though I’m sure that was part of it); it was just not having the brain space to deal with it. And then afterwards … well, that was partly figuring out where to put things.

Of course, all the yarn (which used to live in a couple of boxes on top of a shelf in the lounge room) was going to go in my study; there was no question about that. But the wardrobe in the study had been built for clothes, and there was a lot of wasted space as I wasn’t hanging clothes in there. So we hired a handywoman who put shelves in for me (and put in shelves in other wardrobes in the house where there was wasted space, because who needs that many clothes?!) An IKEA trip later and I had some boxes—roughly one for all the ridiculous numbers of plys of yarn I own. The result was this, which isn’t very photogenic, but is immensely satisfying for the organisational side of me:

Still, it took a few months more to get some momentum back. It’s not enough to want to knit; I need the thing I’m working on to be useful. As the weather turned colder, I started wishing I had more hats to cover my head and my ears. But also Astrid asked me to knit her some new gloves.

I made her a pair back in 2017:

The pattern is based on the Knitty pattern Fetching, which is quite a fun pattern to knit, featuring 4×1 rib, cables and picot bind-off. It was modified by a designer who goes under the handle “Aufildesjours” and sized down for children (Convertibly Cute pattern link).

Not long after I made them, she lost one as children are wont to do, and it was never retrieved. (Not sure what happened to the other.) Anyway, earlier this year, she asked for ones that were the same—only black (because that’s her favourite colour at the moment). I raided my yarn stash, trying to find something that would work that would also be soft to the hands as she had tried the ones I had made for myself and complained about the scratchiness of the yarn. Fortunately I had some Bendigo Woollen Mills Luxury yarn in black, but it was 8ply and the pattern was written for 10ply.

As usual, Ravelry was an invaluable resource: checking out the pattern page for Fetching and the other knitters who had made it unearthed someone who had made it in 8ply, so I raided their notes and adjusted everything accordingly. Different ply means a different needle size, which means a different gauge, which means adding stitches and repeats to make up the difference, and you’ve got to do it for the whole pattern, not just part of it.

In addition, I threw out Aufildesjours’ instruction to knit a length of i-cord and then sew it on the top of the mitten shell; it’s much sturdier if you decrease the number of stitches at the top of the shell and then knit i-cord off that (and then, if you can, decrease/cast off by picking up stitches around the base where the i-cord begins).

The button to fasten the mitten shell to the back of the gloves proved to be a little tricky, though: I was keen not to buy buttons. (I have nothing against them; I just didn’t want to make a special trip out of the button store for two, and I felt like the ones I used back in 2017 were a little to big.) I had the idea of making them out of yarn—thinking about the sort of bobbles you can knit into jumpers—but further research revealed that they wouldn’t hold their shape well enough to act as an anchor for the loop of the mitten shell. So I looked elsewhere and discovered a pattern on Ravelry for an i-cord knot button. Again, I felt it was more secure to pick up four stitches across the back of the glove where the button would sit and knit the i-cord from that, but tying the cord into a knot proved to be rather tricky, and with the end result, I do wonder if I should have just gone with a button instead.

Anyway, Astrid seems pretty happy with them:

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Blog revival

So sometime last year, my website broke. More specifically, it was my online store: WordPress did something that caused WooCommerce to have a hissy fit, or maybe it was vice versa, but the upshot was that I didn’t have a functional store and had to rejig some things in the interim. And somewhere along the way, my website also started experiencing issues, which meant it wasn’t working all the time.

Of course, 2020 being a pandemic year, fixing the store and the site dropped to the bottom of my priorities. But it wasn’t just the pandemic keeping it there (because, most fortunately, I live in Sydney, Australia, where COVID-19 numbers have been very low and the government has done well to keep things under control, so while we went through lockdown, it wasn’t for as long and it wasn’t as intense as the rest of the world). The other big thing that happened last year was that after 12 years of living in a two bedroom flat, we bought a house, so much of the last third of last year was dominated by packing and moving, and then the first third of this year was dominated by selling the old place, setting up the new place and getting used to the new routine.

It’s now been six months and I still don’t feel like I’m back to where I was, creatively speaking. Oh, I’m still writing and doing a bit of editing, and I had the privilege of doing a workshop and a panel for Comic Gong earlier this year. I’ve even been attending my old writing group fairly regularly this year. And yet, I feel like I’ve stalled.

It’s partly the fallout from the move (and it’s interesting to see what moving and purchasing property score on the Stress-O-Meter). It’s partly because Ben was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea part-way through February (and I felt like I lost two months to terrible sleep). And it’s partly because I haven’t had a decent break since … I can’t remember.

I know why the fuel tank is low. It’s just not something I can do much about at the moment. And through it all, I still have this broken website.

Lately Ben did me a big favour and moved it to a new webhost. He was even able to re-instate the template and re-import my old blog posts. The store needs work, however, and somehow I need to clear some time and space to fix it among the billion other things that are on my plate. But because I’m working on the site, I keep thinking about reviving the blog.

Part of me thinks it’s a bad idea. Part of me wonders how I will fit it in on top of everything else. People keep telling me I’m doing too much, and it’s true that that might be part of the energy drain: as well as my part-time job, parenting duties and writing activities, there’s uniform shop (only twice a term now; that’s my new limit as I’ve picked up something new), Scholastic Book Club, I’m the class parent for Miss 10’s class, I still do morning church band, and I’m co-leading Bible Study.

But part of me really misses blogging. Social media just doesn’t do it for me (and I am increasingly finding social media, with its inbuilt algorithms, incredibly frustrating in the way it buries my posts). And part of me wonders if returning to blogging—perhaps with a modest goal of at least one new post a week—I can hack my way out of feeling so stuck.

I do think I’m in some sort of creative depression at the moment. It’s partly the low energy. It’s partly still getting used to the new routine in the new place. It’s partly my cold office (but hey, at least I have an office now! And it has a door!) It’s partly COVID. (You will not believe the number of times I yell at my kids, “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic! Wash your hands!!”) It’s partly feeling useless and unproductive, which then becomes a self-perpetuating spiral (in that feeling useless and unproductive leads to not producing anything, which further fuels feelings of being useless and unproductive). It’s partly feeling discouraged with everything: I see my peers moving forward in their creative careers while I remain stuck; I don’t want to be stuck, but can’t do anything about it on my own steam. And it’s also partly feeling under-supported as a creator, despite having a network of creative peers: only a handful of (very lovely) people ask me about this part of my life, and the rest seem oblivious that it even exists. There’s a rather odd dynamic in the creative life whereby when you put something out in the world, the momentum of doing that gains you attention, connections and perhaps even followers, but when the fields are more fallow, people tend to forget about you.

My other issue at the moment is that I have pivoted away from comics into prose: I am currently trying to write a prose YA fantasy novel. So the people who follow my comics work are less interested in that, and I don’t have a readership in prose yet. Also, no one is waiting for this book: it’s just the project I am the most interested in writing at the moment, and I do hope to sell it one day so that it is professional published by a major publishing house. But of course, I need to finish it first.

Anyway, given the circumstances, I am focusing on doing what I can with what I have. I remind myself that small progress is always better than no progress. I’m currently doing Tansy Rayner Roberts’ 100 words per day for 100 days challenge (which she talks about in From Baby Brain to Writer Brain: Writing through a world of parenting distraction). I am adopting the 3D printer mode of writing, which often comes up on Antony Johnston’s Writing and Breathing podcast (and which I might blog about sometime as it’s helping me break through some of my inbuilt perfectionism). And I am actually reading—reading!—more in years: at least one chapter a day, but sometimes more, which means I’ve already completed my initial goal in the 2021 GoodReads Reading Challenge.

I’m going to revive this blog one post a week. But it won’t be focused on anything particular, which I do think will be maddening to some. The topics will probably jump around a lot—musings on creativity and ideas, the occasional interesting tidbit I’ve stumbled across, a review or two (even though I don’t want this to become purely a review blog), and also news about what I’m up to. I gave my old blog the name “/Karen/” because, to me, the name connotes a directory or folder of all things related to me, and I think it still fits (even if I can’t get WordPress to obey me on this front—*SIGH*). Feel free to cherry pick what you read. In any case, I hope you’ll come across something interesting. And hopefully I’ll emerge from all this all the better for it.

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Trying to write during a pandemic

Attempting to create art at any time is an audacious and difficult act. Attempting to do it during a pandemic can be near impossible.

When I realised that COVID-19 was serious enough to warrant keeping our children home from school, part of me was also deeply in denial. I knew that home learning in combination with my part-time job would completely decimate my writing time. It had taken a while, but I had finally reached the stage where I had managed to confine my paid working hours to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, thereby leaving Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings free to focus on the writing. (I would average about 8-14 hours per week.) I had grown accustomed to spending many a happy hour sitting in one of my local cafés, the library or even the food court near my gym, plugging away at my current work in progress—a young adult fantasy novel set in a world that roughly resembled Edo-era Japan. I viewed writing as being my part-time unpaid job, and even though no one in particular was awaiting this manuscript and even though it may not end up being very publishable (because the one book has since turned into two and publishers are less likely to pick up series these days), I liked what I was doing and wanted to see it to completion.

I spent that last day before home learning began out on our balcony, ignoring my paid job and defiantly scribbling because I knew I would not get the opportunity to do that for a long while.

Then when shutdown measures were put in place and our girls were home with us all the time, life changed completely. It took a while to get used to the new normal, but eventually it started looking like this:

  • Waking up later than usual and having my breakfast (one nice thing about the pandemic is being able to sleep in a little; I am thankful I have kids who will do this);
  • Getting the girls up, dressed and breakfasted; supervising home learning for both Miss 9 and Miss 6 using the schedule the teachers send through at the beginning of the week (it consists of a weekly timetable filled with tasks—mainly English and Maths, but occasionally there are activities related to Science, History, Health, Art, Library and [guh] PE. [I never thought parenting would involve teaching my child the Macarena and the Nutbush]). On a good day, I will spend most of my time supervising Miss 6 while Miss 9 just gets on with it; on a bad day, I will be on both their cases to try and get them to do the work. On a great day, I will even be able to get a few work-related tasks done at the same time. We are fortunate to have enough devices for this: Ben and I never got rid of our old laptops, so the girls have one each for their school work and occasional Zoom meetings;
  • Breaking for lunch: I pack four days’ worth of lunches at the beginning of the week so all the girls need to do is take their lunchbox out of the fridge. But I still need to prepare lunch for me and Ben. Most days it’s a salad of some description. On Fridays, we get takeaway from our local café as a way of supporting them and keeping them in business;
  • Making the girls do a bit of tidying and chores. In the early days, we worked on decluttering and tidying their rooms as the build-up had gotten a bit out of hand. These days, it’s more surface cleaning. Or sometimes I will get them to make a card to post to someone (e.g. if there’s a family birthday coming up) or finish some colouring in they started that they refuse to part with. This is also when I am able to squeeze in some housework;
  • Letting the girls have screen time: at the moment, they are completely addicted to Minecraft Education, so I log Miss 9 back into the laptop she uses for home learning and I log Miss 6 onto the iPad. The nice thing is they can play together in their virtual worlds. Occasionally they even get together with other school friends and play. They also never seem to get tired of it!
  • Working on tasks related to my paid job. Now that I’m finally doing just one job instead of two and I have a very lovely employer who is happy for me to work flexibly and who has always allowed me to work from home, I tend to spread my hours across five or six days a week. I also have some time in lieu I can use if need be;
  • My husband taking the girls out for some exercise at around 4pm. This is when I drop everything and write;
  • Throwing dinner together;
  • Squeezing in another hour or so of work after dinner while my husband does the dishes, bath and bedtime (though sometimes this time is also devoted to housework);
  • Spending my evenings after the girls are in bed either watching Netflix, reading, doing more work for the paid job (if need be), catching up with someone over the phone, online Bible Study, etc.
Hallway PE lesson

Hallway PE lesson.

Given I no longer have large swathes of creative time, I’ve found that there’s certain types of writing that I’m just incapable of doing right now. I can’t write new stuff. I can’t even re-draft what I’ve already written because I don’t have the brain capacity. Instead, my writing has consisted of scribbling longhand in a journal about things to do with my novel. It’s not quite a zero draft (though aspects of it are); I think of it being more like a subzero draft. It’s not the prose that will go into the novel; it’s writing around the novel to do with things about the novel.

Initially I wrote about the section I was up to and the section after, trying to work out what happens in it and why. Lately, though, I’ve started sketching out the arcs for each of my point of view characters—trying to work out where the plot twists and turns, as well as some of the finer details around that. Sometimes the sketching takes me off on research tangents. (I spent a very long time looking into Japanese arrows and how they’re made one afternoon.) Sometimes the scribbling is about minor characters I’m trying to get to know. The rule is that I must write about the novel, but I can write about anything I want related to it.

An old me would not have seen the value of this sort of writing because it doesn’t seem like actual writing (even though I am averaging 5-6 hours a week on it). And then a couple of years ago when I was at ACAF (Australian Comic Arts Festival), I was talking to my friend Louie about it and he compared it to that stage of comics when you’re thumbnailing/sketching roughs. He said something about how when you’re doing that, it can seem like you’re not doing much, because usually you’re just messing around and trying things. But often you end up making very key decisions that carry over into later stages of the work—when you’re pencilling/inking/colouring, etc.

That little comment stayed with me because I realised he’s totally right and that it’s true of prose writing too: as I’ve been playing around and giving myself permission to write whatever (even if it’s a grammatical and spelling nightmare, and it sounds completely incoherent), I have been making key decisions about story and characters that I know will carry across into the finished work. What I’m doing isn’t a waste of time; it’s actually constructive and helfpul. Furthermore, it’s even fun.

And when it’s fun, it’s a very nice escape from the current situation. (Indeed, one of the good things about writing a fantasy novel is being able to slip away into a different pandemic-free world.) And that’s very good for sustaining my mental health—at least until the time when I will finally have my writing days back again.

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Time for creative projects

Time for creative projects

As promised last month, this month I thought I’d write a bit about finding time to do creative projects. People often ask me how I do it—especially when they find out I’m a parent of young children. “Where do you find the time?” they say.

168 hours a week

The thing is, I don’t have to find it; I already have it. You do too. We all do. We all have the same amount of time in our lives—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, 8,760 hours a year (and 8,784 in a leap year). We may feel like we have less (or more, though people generally don’t feel like they have more time). But in reality, we all have the same amount of time. It’s just that we all have different demands on our time.

See, we all have time, but we don’t always have control of how we can spend that time. A certain amount of time must be spent on certain things—housework (as I discussed at length in this post), eating, sleeping, commuting, working in your paid job, raising children, maintaining your relationship with your partner (if you have one) and so on. Some of that time is non-negotiable: if you want to earn your salary, you need to put in the hours and have something to show for it, or you’ll get fired. If you want your kids to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, you need to spend time feeding them, clothing them, talking to them, nurturing them, shuttling them to and from school and other activities, being there for them, and so on. And if you want to prevent your marriage from disintegrating, you have to spend time working on the relationship—checking in with one another, having fun with one another, being intimate, working through problems together, maybe even going to marriage counselling together. (Please note there is no shame in going to marriage counselling. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it means you’re willing to work on stuff. More couples should go—and long before they find themselves on the brink of divorce.)

That said, there is always some portion of time—no matter how small—that is negotiable: there are no particular demands on it and you can choose how you want to spend it. Most of us tend to spend that time on rest and recreation, which is a perfectly wonderfully way to spend it, because rest and recreation are important and restorative, and act as valuable fuel for the rest of your life. But some of us choose to spend at least some of that negotiable time on making art. And because that time is so small, often we yearn for more.

The thing is, for all for us, time is a finite resource: once it’s gone, you can’t get more of it. There’s no way to increase your 168 hours per week to 170. You can’t buy more. You can’t steal more. You can’t get time from someone else to extend your life the way that people do in that 2011 Andrew Niccol film In Time, where time literally is money. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). He’s right: you can’t. (Believe me, I’ve tried!)

Instead, our task is to spend our time wisely—to make the most of what we have—what we have been given. As Moses sang in the Book of Psalms, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). We all have 168 hours per week; how are you going to use yours?

Daily patterns

That said, not all time is the same: it changes throughout the day. Or rather, our experience of it changes throughout the day. At the risk of repeating myself in this post, I’ve found the chapter on the daily pattern we all traverse in terms of our energy levels and output in Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing quite helpful: after waking, we rise to a peak at around lunchtime, which is then followed by an afternoon trough (or “slump time”, as I like to call it), a smaller peak in the late afternoon/early evening and then a gradual decline towards bedtime. Contrary to what many in society might actual think, we are humans, not machines; we can’t be “on” all the time.

Our days follow roughly the same shape (peak, trough, smaller peak, decline), but as Pink also points out, we start that shape at different times, according to our chronotype. Some of us are larks and rise early. (I’m definitely not one of them.) Some of us are night owls and rise late. But most of us are what Pink calls “third birds”: we fall somewhere in the middle and wake—not as early as larks, but not as late as owls. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was rather disappointed to discover that I was a third bird and not a natural night owl, which is what I’d been calling myself). If you’re interested in finding out your own chronotype, do the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ). If the results of that aren’t satisfactory, another way to figure it out is to fill out Pink’s daily tracker worksheet, which directs you to write down what you’re doing, how alert you feel mentally and how energised you are physically every 90 minutes. Depending on your chronotype, you’ll start the daily pattern at a different time of day to the rest of the population, so the shape of your day—the rise of your energy levels—may look slightly different.

Sleeping woman

Even accounting for the daily pattern, our energy tends to fluctuate in 90-minute cycles: Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project says these cycles are derived from our ultradian rhythm: we rise to a peak part-way through the cycle (which is roughly 90 minutes long—so the peak occurs at about 45 minutes in) and then decline towards a trough. He recommends taking a 15-minute break every 90-minutes before getting stuck into things again. He also recommends doing things (like resting) to boost your energy, as energy, unlike time, is not a finite resource, it’s a renewable one. (For more about that, check out his talk, “The myths of the overworked creative” or this summary.) Your energy levels are obviously affected by all sorts of things—how much rest you’ve had (or not had!), how much exercise you’ve done, what’s currently stressing you out, and so on. But according to Schwartz’s thinking, if you can manage and control those things, you can boost your energy and thus your productivity in the time you have.

That said (and as I said earlier), not all of us have total control over our time: our time is often shaped by external factors—even for those who lean more towards the unstructured/spontaneous end of the spectrum. The patterns of the day can end up falling into blocks that fit around, say, the 9 to 5 workday, the school run or the baby’s feeding schedule. I don’t see this as a negative: if anything, it’s a positive, because endless time actually isn’t actually that helpful for productivity. In fact, having endless time can be absolutely terrifying because it contains so much potential and it can be wasted in so many possible ways. Having pre-existing fences around your time is actually quite helpful in the same way that having good interpersonal boundaries helps you to thrive.

Making the most of the time

So to bring all this together, where can you find the time to fit in creative work? Here are a few suggestions that might be helpful, depending on your circumstances:

  • Schedule it in: Figure out your chronotype and the periods each day when you are more likely to be productive. It might be in the early morning before the break of dawn. It might be late at night after the household has gone to bed. It probably won’t be after lunch during the afternoon slump. Once you’ve worked that out, look at your daily and weekly timetable, and the natural rhythms/externally imposed boundaries they place on your time. See where you might be able to fit in some creative work—but make sure that these blocks of time are as close as possible to your most productive periods. It may not be possible, but perhaps there’s a morning or two—or an evening or two—that you can reserve for yourself. An hour and a half is ideal (bearing in mind your ultradian cycle—90 minutes). If you can’t manage that, see if you can squeeze in even 30 minutes. Anything is better than nothing. Once you’ve scheduled it, stick to it. (For me, I currently have Tuesdays child-free, so after I’ve finished drop-offs, I go to a café and write for a bit, and then move to the library and write for a bit longer. I usually stop around lunch time and try to spend the rest of the time on R&R.) You may not get much done in that 30 minutes. But remember that a little is better than nothing. And maybe once you get into the routine of things, you may be able to block out more time.
  • Use your incidental time: Incidental time happens in the corners: it’s the time you spend standing in queues, commuting to and from work, sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms, or even watching your kids play in the playground. If you can, try to make the most of that time: get out your phone and scribble down some story ideas; let your mind chew over that plot problem you’re having trouble untangling; daydream and let those unrelated connections come together to fuel your creativity. It’s surprising how much creative work you can actually do in the corners of your time—often when you’re supposed to be doing something else. (Remember the Zeigarnik effect, which I talked about in this post.) I once outlined the plot for a children’s picture book on my phone while following my then two-year-old around the IKEA showroom floor. Normally parenting and writing don’t mix, but it did that time.
Subway passengers
  • Boost your energy: If you have no choice but to schedule creative work during slump time, one way to make the time work better for you is to make sure you take decent rest before you go into slump time. Daniel Pink has a list of helpful ways to reinvigorate yourself in When that don’t actually take up much time. But, as Tony Schwartz says, energy is a renewable resource, so boost your energy by trying to make sure that you’ve slept well and rested well before you embark on creative work during slump time. If that doesn’t work and your mind and body are still choosing to rebel, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, roll with it: make the most of it by using the time to feed yourself with creator medicine. Watch a movie. Read a book. Passively consume things that will enrich you creatively. And don’t feel guilty about doing any of that: it’s still creative work.
  • Be realistic with yourself: That said, often creative work is hard going—particularly when other things in your life are going poorly. It’s helpful to acknowledge all of that and be compassionate towards yourself, instead of beating yourself up for not meeting some arbitrary high standard that you’ve set for yourself. As David M Barnett tweeted, “Time to write is an under-acknowledged privilege that a lot of us take for granted.” Not everyone can write 2,000 words a day (particularly not those who have to get dinner on the table every night, says Ann Patchett!) Not everyone can clear some time to do creative work—particularly if you’re a single mother of three who works full-time. Some people have chronic health problems that mean they’re barely functioning for most of the day. Talitha Kalago, author of Half a Million Words in Nine Months: The time management guide for finishing your manuscript, struggles with a range of chronic health problems, but still manages to be productive in the time she has. If this is something you struggle with too, the following posts may be helpful:
  • Deal with time sucks: With limited time—specifically limited quality time—for creative work, we don’t want to be wasting it by video hopping on YouTube, getting sucked into games or scrolling endlessly through social media. Part of the problem is that a lot of our entertainment options these days are designed to be addictive: they’re designed to activate the dopamine/reward centres of our brain so that we experience an almost Pavlovian response when we achieve that “win” or receive certain notifications. Some of these things are also designed to be intrusive—to interrupt whatever we’re currently doing and grab our attention so that we’ll be drawn to our phones, instead of concentrating on the task at hand. If you suspect this might be a problem for you, there are apps you can install on both computers and phones that monitor and report your activity so you can see first-hand what is sucking up your time. But there are other ways to deal with time sucks. Try the following:
    • Acknowledge to yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are you depressed? Do you have a psychological need for attention? Are you just bored? If so, maybe it’s better to treat your feelings in other ways that don’t eat as much time and that are more effective than scrolling endlessly through Facebook.
    • Limit your distractions during creative work time. Turn off notifications. Put your phone on airplane mode. Use Freedom to block certain apps. Create two logins on your computer: one for personal stuff and one for creative stuff. (This might end up being annoying, though; let me know if it works for you!) “DO NOT DISTURB” is your friend. If anyone tries to contact you, get back to them later; most of the time, it’s not urgent, and it’s ridiculous to make yourself available to everyone every hour of the day.
    • Be sensible: if you’re trying to work and you’re having trouble focusing or concentrating, or you’re finding yourself nodding off, maybe the problem is you haven’t had enough rest (and by “rest”, I mean both the sleep variety and the leisure variety; everyone needs to waste time sometimes because wasting time is an important curative for good mental health). Rest, as I said earlier, is valuable fuel for energy, so don’t neglect it.
Journal and earbuds
  • Do what you can with the time you have: It may not be much, but it’s all still useful and helpful in the long-run. Sometimes, as a way to warm up, I start with morning pages (from Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way), or I have a dedicated journal that I use for scribbling 100-word exercises—little scenes or flash fiction that aren’t for anything except my amusement only. Sometimes I just write about the thing I’m working on instead of writing the actual thing. (I feel like it’s the writing equivalent of sketching or doing rough layouts in comics, and I used to feel a bit embarrassed about it until I had a conversation with Louie Joyce, who pointed out that often the hard work happens at that stage, because you’re making key decisions about how things should look and work—decisions that pay off later when you’re building on that foundational work during the pencilling/inking/colouring stage.) As I said, it’s not much, but it’s still all valuable.
  • Supercharge your creative practice: For some people, showing up is all they need to do to get the creative juices flowing. For others, something more is needed. As I said in this post, sometimes setting timers helps as it puts a fence around the time and only locks you in for a short period, forcing you to be productive. Sometimes leaving things half-finished is an easy way in the next time you have a chance to work on something. Sometimes a bit of preparation is all you need: recently I’ve been struck by this blog post, “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day” by Rachel Aaron/Bach and what she wrote about the triangle of knowledge, time and enthusiasm: once she worked out what she was writing before she wrote it (knowledge) and she figured out worked best for her in terms of time of day and length of time (time) and she identified the hooks that made her excited to write particular scenes (enthusiasm), her output went up in a phenomenal way. And this was while she was looking after a newborn!

It’s difficult to find time to do creative work—difficult, but not impossible. Life can be very busy and very crowded. But even in the chaos of the day-to-day and your never-ending To Do list, you can still find the time. You just need to want to do it.

(P.S. For more on this subject, I also recommend checking out René Pfitzner’s post, “How do I find time to make comics?” and Mark McGuinness on “How to Find Time for Creative Work”.)

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Creator medicine

It’s the same old story: you want to create, you want to produce, you sit down at your desk and then nothing comes. The hours tick by. The page remains blank. You feel like you’re wasting your time. You feel stuck. You feel like this sucks. You feel like you suck. You get angry with yourself. You start beating yourself up—well, metaphorically. Of course that doesn’t work; the page is still blank. Why did you even think that would help?

Your mind wanders and you start thinking about the state of your life. There’s always so much to do—your paid job, of course, but also the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry; all the admin and logistical stuff that has to be done related to your kids and their activities (soooooo many school notes!); and while you think longingly of your couch and spacing out in front of Netflix and your current favourite show, you know that you won’t be able to get there until all the other stuff is done.

“Why aren’t there more hours in the day?” you think. Your rational mind knows that everyone gets the same amount—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week—but the petulant part of your brain longs for more—more time to sleep (you are so tired; why did Miss 4 wake up at 2am this morning???), more time to read, more time to think, more time to create. You stare at the clock, willing the second hand to stop moving forward, Shakespeare echoing in the back of your head—

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with what which goes before,
In sequent toil all forward do contend.

(Sonnet 60)

—but it’s no use: you can’t even construct a proper sentence; what makes you think you can stop time?

Your mind drifts again and you find yourself thinking of your friends—the people you consider your creative peers—all busy creators with amazing outputs whose work ends up getting shortlisted for or winning awards. “Patrick’s been invited to be Guest of Honour at PopCultchaCon,” you think to yourself. “Why can’t I be like him?” Well, the answer’s obvious: you don’t produce, so you don’t have anything to show for your labour. That’s why you don’t win any awards. That’s why you don’t get any recognition.

“Well, I would,” you think resentfully. “I would—if I had a writing studio like he does—if I had a job that afforded me more spare time—if I had a partner who supported me, did the lion’s share of the housework and was happy to look after the kids while I went off and wrote.” And before you can stop it, the bitterness sets in—the anger, the envy, the despair … the depression.

“I try so hard,” you think. “I’m exhausted all the time. What’s the point? I’m over this.” So you get up and walk away.

Let me suggest an alternative: rather than walking away and giving up, when you feel these things—when you feel frustrated, angry, envious, despairing, depressed, exhausted, uninspired, even burnt out—perhaps consider these feeling as sign posts pointing to the fact that the creator in you is in need of nurturing. Maybe you just need to step away and replenish yourself creatively before you can dive back into it. Maybe you need to take some time to combat the unhelpful thoughts that circle your head, causing you to doubt yourself, hovering anxiously over your every move. Maybe you need to find more helpful ways of working that fit better with your lifestyle or life stage. Or maybe you just need to rest for a bit.

Below are some remedies that may help your specific malady. Obviously not everything listed here will be helpful, and some stuff may be completely unsuitable. Cherry pick as you please, and use this as a launchpad for producing your own list of creator medicines.

Nurture yourself

It’s important to nurture yourself as a creator: every time you create, the energy goes out of you and into the work, which means you need replenishing. Obviously this includes replenishing your body with food, drink, exercise and sleep, because if you’re feeling drained, hungry, thirsty or tired, being creative is harder. But it also includes replenishing yourself creatively—replenishing yourself with things like ideas, concepts, stories, social time, other people’s creations, and even play. Try doing the following:

  • Consume other people’s creations (comics, novels, TV shows, movies, music, artworks, etc.)
  • Listen to podcasts on interesting topics. One of my favourites is Song Exploder, a podcast in which songwriters take apart their songs and talk about how they were made. I’m not a songwriter, but each episode leaves me wanting to write music.
  • Watch or read inspiring talks or articles about creativity. Here are a few I love and revisit regularly:

    My friend Guan has more listed on his website.

  • Go for a walk somewhere beautiful in nature.
  • Rub shoulders with likeminded creators. I do this by attending conventions, festivals or other events, where a lot of the more established creators can be found; following creators I like on social media; being an active member of groups like the Sydney Comics Guild; and also deliberately keeping up with particular people I consider my creative peers.
  • Talk to other creators about what they’re working on, how they like to work and what inspires/nurtures them.
  • Create in another medium. If you’re a writer, play or write music. If you’re a musician, take up sketching. For me, I’ve always got a knitting project on the go.
  • Work on multiple projects at once. That way, if one stalls, you can always switch to another.
  • “Play” with your medium. Try something new. If you’re an artist, experiment with a new technique or a different set of tools. If you’re a musician, try playing a new instrument. Give yourself permission to do whatever you like without the pressure to create amazing work.
  • Tackle a shorter project—something manageable that won’t take over your life. Finishing it will give you a sense of accomplishment and achievement, and boost your confidence for longer projects.

Look after your mental health

It’s one thing to nurture your creativity; it’s another to deal with the unhelpful thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing around your creative work that hinder that work—things like, “I’m not good enough”, “This is a waste of time”, “I wish I was more like that person”. Try doing the following:

  • Write it out: put actual pen to paper and write out everything you’re feeling at the moment—all the anger, pain, frustration, depression. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or even sentence structure; just get it out there on the page.
  • Identify unhelpful thought patterns (for example, “I can’t write” => “I suck” => “I am a waste of space”). If necessary, write them down. Then cross them out and combat the unhelpful thought with more helpful ones: “I can’t write” => “I can’t write right now” => “I’m going to do something else to practise self-care/work on another project” => “I’ll try again another time” => “I’m trying. Go me!”
  • Remember that “Comparison is the thief of joy” (as one or both of the Roosevelts said): nothing good comes from comparing yourself with others, so don’t do it. Instead, be happy for this other person and celebrate their success. Creativity is not a zero sum game and this is not a competition.
  • Practise self-compassion. You may be going through a lot at the moment, for there are always things that make life challenging. But you’re surviving. You’re trying. You’re making baby steps, and baby steps are better than nothing. (Incidentally, I was very encouraged recently by something that my friend Louie Joyce said: I was talking about how I was producing all these really rough bits and pieces of prose and how it was like sketching or doing thumbnail layouts in comics, and he commented that that stage often takes the longest and feels the hardest because that’s when you’re actually working things out and making key decisions about how the work should go; the later pencilling/inking/colouring all builds on that, and they’re easier because you’ve already put in the hard yards.)
  • Celebrate your wins. So you only wrote 200 words today. Congratulations! That’s 200 words you didn’t have yesterday. So you didn’t end up writing anything. Congratulations! You showed up; many people don’t. So you didn’t even get to your desk. It’s okay! Try again another day.
  • Create for yourself. No one ever has to see this; this is just for you. Do it because you can. Do it because it’s fun. Do it because it brings you joy. All creativity should start from this point, because if it doesn’t, you’ll not want to do it when things get hard.

Consider the importance of timing

Sometimes the problem isn’t so much what you’re doing, but when you’re doing it. I’ve been thinking about this more and more while reading Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing. Many books are about how to do things; Daniel Pink’s When is about when to do things. I used to think that every hour of the day was equal. Daniel Pink showed me that this is definitely not the case: one section of his book is focuses on the pattern of the day—how, after we wake, we experience a peak in our energy and motivation in the morning followed by a trough in the afternoon and then a smaller peak in the early evening. This, coupled with his section on chronotypes (i.e. early birds, night owls and what he calls “third birds”) has changed the way I do things. On my child-free day off, if I can, I tackle writing in the morning. Then I break for lunch (the most important meal of the day, Pink argues). I then expect that seven hours after my waking time (around about 2pm), I will start to feel the effects of the afternoon trough and trying to work will probably be futile. (Often I find myself nodding off around that time due to sleep deprivation anyway.) I’ve also noticed that my brain tends to be really alert around 9:30/10pm, so occasionally I will make good use of that time. But that period of the day also interferes with sleep, so if I can, I avoid using it.

Here are some articles on timing by other people that you might find helpful:

Rest

Another thing that I’ve gleaned from reading Daniel Pink is making the most of breaks: one of the surprising things he found when talking to pro athletes was the number of breaks they took. It wasn’t because they were lazy; in fact, the opposite was true: the breaks made them better at what they did. Furthermore, it’s been shown that breaks help you work through the afternoon trough, which means that, overall, you are more efficient and productive. Pink challenges his readers to add breaks to their daily To Do lists, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, it’s something I try to bear in mind as I go about my days.

(Pink has a lot of advice about how long your breaks should be and what you should do when you’re taking them, because doing things like walking in nature while chatting to a good friend are actually more restorative than scrolling through Twitter on your phone, which is my preferred form of break activity. But I won’t go into those here; you’ll have to pick up his book.)

But rest, in my opinion, involves more than daily restorative breaks. It involves more than just sleep. It’s also about letting your creativity lie fallow for a bit—giving those muscles a rest before getting back to it so that they work more effectively in the long haul. I often think of Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk on “The power of time off”—how once every seven years, he would take a year off from his work as a designer, travel to Bali and just create whatever he wanted. To his surprise, the stuff he worked on while on sabbatical became integral to the work he did in the following seven years.

Nurturing yourself. Looking after your mental health. Considering the importance of timing. Taking breaks and resting. These are all forms of creator medicine—ways to feed and care for your creative self so that you can keep going for the long haul. Because continuing to create is a much better alternative to quitting.

So go forth and create!

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You vs. the blank page

I’ve been writing for a long time. I started when I was a child (I have a bunch of very terrible novels that I wrote as a kid and a teenager that should never see the light of day), I went on to study creative writing at Uni, and I’ve gone on to write short stories, comic anthologies, articles, blog posts and even workshops. And yet even after all this work and all these words, I still find facing the blank page scary.

It’s terrifying for even the most seasoned writers—writers who have written and published many books, writers who have multiple awards gracing their bookshelves, and writers who actually turn up and do this every day because they need to make a living.

I’m sure you know this too. When you sit down to write that article/essay/assignment/newsletter or whatever it is, suddenly everything else becomes so much more interesting. Instead of working on the actual writing, you find yourself tidying your desk, doing laundry, clearing out the spare room or doing things you’ve already put off for six months. Or you fall down the social media wormhole and find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Twitter. Anything else instantly becomes more attractive than facing that blank page.

Unfortunately that means that the blank page wins, and the blank page winning means that you still have that thing you need to do hanging over you—making you feel bad and making you feel guilty for doing all those other things. You may have put off the task for another day (classic procrastination!), but then the war begins anew. The important thing is not to let the blank page win, and the only way to beat the blank page is to fill it.

So here are nine strategies you can use to beat—and fill—the blank page. Now, you won’t necessarily be filling it with gold; unfortunately it’s a rare occurrence that good writing just flows from the tip of your pen (or
your typing fingers) like milk and honey. But you will fill it with something, and something—no matter how crappy or half-formed—is better than nothing, because something, at least, gives you something to work with.

1. Morning pages

In The Artists Way (which I have not read all the way through), Julia Cameron advocates starting your writing session with “morning pages”: fill three pieces of paper longhand (not digitally) and write anything you like—nonsense, drivel, a stream of consciousness. The idea is to empty your brain of all the things you’re currently thinking about or stressing over so that you can clear them out of the way and focus on the work you have to do. They’re also a way of bypassing your inner critic—that voice that tells you that what you’re doing doesn’t matter and will never amount to anything, that you’re a waste of space, that you’re wasting your time. Fill three pages and then stop. Don’t show them to anyone. They’re just for you. Then move onto the thing you’re supposed to be working on.

2. Brain dump

A brain dump is similar to morning pages because what you’re doing is just downloading everything you think about a topic and vomiting it onto the page. I like using this technique for articles as it’s a good way of getting it all out there, even if you don’t use it all later. It could be a stream of consciousness. It could be loose associations. It could be a mind map. Whatever it is, it’s the raw materials with which you craft and refine your writing later.

3. Set a timer

Often people moan about having no time to write. They long for whole days—weeks—months—they can dedicate and spend on a particular project. The truth is, endless amounts of time can actually be unhelpful to creative work. Instead, if you put fences around your time, you can actually be a lot more productive. One way to create an artificial fence is to set a timer—say 30 minutes. Sit and write until the timer goes off. Once those 30 minutes are up, stop and do something else. Continue if you want to (and especially if you’re on a roll). But don’t feel like you have to. You’ve done your time. You’ve put in the work. If it’s just not happening, try again later.

Timers are a very good way of making the war between you and blank page less painful: do your 30 minutes (or whatever it is) and then stop. You’re only “in prison” for that short amount of time, and then you get “released”.

Timers are also great for productivity because enforcing regular breaks actually makes you produce more. Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, often talks about the human body’s ultradian rhythms—those 90-minute cycles where we move from being high and energy in motivation to fatigue and sluggishness. Align your timers to your ultradian cycle and you’re likely to write more and make better use of your time.

4. Use your incidental time

Instead of setting a timer and imposing an artificial fence on your time, make use of your existing fences. Existing fences are determined by external factors—the time you spend waiting at the bus stop, the length of your trip on public transport, even the duration of your lunch break. Even if you only have 10 minutes, you can still get quite a bit done. Use that time to brainstorm or scribble. A little can go a long way.

5. Show up at the same time every day

Showing up at the same time every day is nearly impossible for me because none of my days are the same. But it may work for those of you who thrive on routine. It’s a way of tricking your brain into creative mode because you’re training it in the habit. Show up at the same time every day and make yourself write for the same amount of time. Just as with exercise, the people who do it says that it gets easier the more you do it.

6. Make rules to trick yourself into it

Another technique in the “trick your brain” vein is to make rules for yourself to force yourself into it. Neil Gaiman (one of my favourite writers) has a rule that when he’s sitting at his desk, he can either look out the window or he can write. He can’t read. He can’t check the internet or read social media. He can’t tidy or clean. He can stare out the window or he can write. Soon enough, staring out the window becomes boring, so he turns to writing instead.

7. Use placeholders

This is a trick I learned at GenreCon last year: in order to keep yourself writing, write things like “Insert cool thing here” or “Look up that reference later” or “{Character name}”. For me, it’s easy to get distracted by things that detract from the writing—for example, naming new characters or chasing down that obscure reference or quote I read years ago, but can’t find because Google Brain doesn’t exist yet (though perhaps that should never happen). It’s better to leave those things for later and keep going.

8. Aim to meet a specific word count

This doesn’t work for me, but it might for you. At GenreCon last year, I met a romance writer who had said on this panel I attended that she knows that she can write the first draft of a novel (i.e. 80,000 words) in eight weeks. (She also has a two-year-old and a job in copywriting. I am in awe of her.) This is how she does it: she works out how many writing days she’s likely to have in eight weeks, and realistically, it’s Monday to Friday as writing doesn’t normally happen on the weekends. So five days a week for eight weeks is 40 days, and 40 days into 80,000 words is 2,000 words a day, which seems quite doable when you think about it. So she aims for 2,000 words a day. Sometimes she does more, sometimes she does less. She keeps a spreadsheet to track her progress, and at the end of those eight weeks, she’ll have that first draft. It might be a crappy first draft, but it’s still a first draft.

9. Leave things half-finished at the end of your writing session

Final strategy: at the end of your writing session, leave things half-finished. This goes completely against my nature because I’m a completionist and I can’t stand leaving things half-finished. But it’s actually a helpful trick to get you back into what you’re working on at your next writing session. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect, which is named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist who studied memory in the 1920s. She found that incomplete tasks are easier to remember than successful ones, because your brain keeps it active in your working memory in the background until you get back to it.

So there’s nine strategies to use to win the war against the blank page. The important thing is to write something. Produce that crappy first draft, because once you have it, you can do something with it—even if you throw it out and start over. Nothing is ever wasted; you’re always building on what you’ve done before.

That said, expect that first draft to be crappy. Expect it not to work. Expect it to be hard. The crappiness of that first draft is no reflection on you. As organisational psychologist Adam Grant says, “Instead of saying, ‘I’m crap,’ you say, ‘The first few drafts are always crap, and I’m just not there yet.’”

Happy writing!