twenty-nine things i've learnt in twenty-nine years

1.       Read books you actually want to read.

2.       If a book gets boring halfway through, put it down.

3.       Joy is a compass.

4.       Ask for what you want.

5.       It’s okay to want things.

6.       When people who love you ask how you feel, tell them truthfully.

7.       If you want to try something new, don’t overthink it. Just begin.

8.       Hard work beats connections.

9.       Kindness beats charm.

10.   Feminism must mean intersectional feminism.

11.   Eat intuitively.

12.   It’s okay to eat.

13.   Don’t have too many apps on your phone.

14.   Treat your body with respect.

15.   It’s okay for creative work to feel like play.

16.   It’s okay for creative work to feel like work.

17.   You can do a lot in 15 minutes.

18.   Other women are not your competition.

19.   You don’t have to be underweight to dance. Or eat. Or be loved.

20.   Beauty is a myth. Wear lipstick on your own terms.

21.   One email can change your life.

22.   Always hope.

23.   Don’t shrink yourself to make other people feel better about themselves.

24.   You like what you like. Own it.

25.   It’s actually okay if someone doesn’t like you.

26.   Like yourself. Try hard for this.

27.   Most of life can’t fit into any box you make. Let things be.

28.   Going outside always helps.

29.   Notice things. It makes your life richer. 

 

how to decide what to write next

I’ve noticed that I usually blog about things I’m struggling with. If I write a pep talk, it’s because I need one. If I’m talking about the smallness of my life, it’s because I’m genuinely struggling/wrestling with those ideas. So you can probably guess from the title of this post that I have NO IDEA WHAT TO WRITE NEXT.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas.

I have reams of ideas. Some of them are tiny little specks of hmmm, I wonder if, and others are bigger and more brainstormed and fleshed out. Some even have endings. (Endings are my Kryptonite.)

But which do I choose?

I told myself that I would not write another thing until I’d finished with TTG edits because, honestly, I felt like I needed to dive down deep into that manuscript, and not come up for air. That worked well for me, but now that I’ve moved on to copyedits, I find myself presented with a question: what next?

Well? Well?

I don’t know what next.

But here are some markers I like to use for deciding whether or not to pursue a project:

1.  Goosebumps: do I have them? Goosebumps are a very good sign. They indicate that I'm excited to write something, and I believe that books that come from a place of deep excitement/soul-stirring are always, always better.

2.  Music: when I listen to music, does my mind wander toward the story? Can I picture scenes, a setting, a main character?

3.  A title: I’m weird, so I like to start with titles. I love them and I don’t feel like I can quite begin until I have a title I love. (THE TURNAWAY GIRLS has had the same title from Day 1.)

4.  A “why”: why am I writing this book? There has to be an abiding idea at its heart that pushes me along like a tide. Usually the “why” is a fear or issue I’m dealing with and want to explore.

5.  Do I “know”? You know when you ask someone how you know when you’re in love and they go, “You just know”? Yeah, that. It’s kind of the same with a book idea. How do you know you want to write it? Well, you just know. Gut feelings are important here. Pay attention.

Okay, so here are a couple of guidelines:

1. Feelings, not thoughts:

Don’t try to logic your way into a new idea. Go with your gut. Choose the book you’re dying to write. The idea you’re in love with. Even if it seems a little crazy. In the early creative stages of making a book, I really give very little credence to logic. (Logic is for copyedits, trust me.)

2. Don’t ask other people:

This might be a controversial opinion, but I really don’t believe in sharing ideas before they’re ready. An idea for a book, when it first starts to grow, is delicate and easily killed. One stray comment (“But how would that work exactly?” “You can’t write about a girl with birds for hair!” “That genre is dead.”) can snuff it before it even has a chance. For this reason, I like to write in secret until my ideas have grown spines and can make two firm fists.

3. Do not wade—dive!

You know that feeling when it’s really hot outside but you can’t make yourself get into the pool? You dip a toe in and the sheer difference between this heat and that cold is enough to make you balk. You stand on the step for ten minutes before deciding it’s not worth the trouble. In my experience, drafting is the same. If I um and aw too much about where to start, what the main character’s name is, or what the inciting incident will be, I’ll never get started. For me, discovery happens while writing, so there’s little point in trying to decide how everything is going to pan out before I begin. I have to dive in head first.

Conclusion(s)?

Whatever tactics you have for deciding what to write next, one thing, I think, will remain universally true: choose love. Choose thrill. Choose the most unlikely possibility. That way lies the most affecting, and the most original, story.

 

 

on smallness

My life is small—just look at my Instagram feed. Most of the pictures I take are of a book, a notebook, a cup of tea, my poodle, a favourite pen. Most of them are taken in the same room, too—my living room, which I love for its light and tidiness, and where I do most of my work.

When I first noticed this, I felt ashamed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised: I like it that way.

Last week, I read THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP by Marie Kondo. Immediately after reading it, I wanted to tidy up using the KonMari method. I started with my clothes. When I dropped a rubbish bag full of shoes, shirts and dresses off at the Hospice Shop, I felt so much lighter. I like owning less stuff. I like opening my drawers and seeing that I have three skirts—three skirts that I love and actually wear.

But this wrestling with smallness—and shame about smallness—doesn’t only pertain to my lifestyle. It also extends to my books. My life is small. My books are small, too. As it stands, the final manuscript for THE TURNAWAY GIRLS is 42,000 words long. When I read about people wracking up 70,000, 90,000, 100,000 words, I feel both awe and disappointment. Disappointment, because I can’t do that. And awe, because, well, have you ever tried to write 100,000 words? It’s A LOT.

Many of the books I love the most are on the shorter side: CORALINE, FLORA AND ULYSSES, SKELLIG, THE GIVER. But this doesn’t stop me from occasionally feeling like my inability to make a story 93, 000 words long is a cataclysmic creative failure.  

But then I remind myself: just as my life is the perfect size for me, so are my books. If I work hard at making them what they are meant to be, then their word counts will be just right. No need to stress about it. (This is something I'd like to scrawl on the walls, to remind myself.) 

Your job in life is to return to yourself. Find out what you have to offer. Give it freely. As Oprah puts it: “Find a way to be yourself.”  

One of the things I have to offer is smallness and simplicity—finding the exact right skirt, and the exact right word.

And I’m okay with that.

how to come up with ideas

Ideas.

They’re slippery little things.

If you ask a writer where to find them, they’re likely to say something like: “I don’t know??? They just...arrive??? Go ask somebody else???”

Part of me understands their frustration. Because sometimes ideas do simply arrive, sudden and whole and complete, and no one can explain that particular breed of magic. 

But another part of me has always wanted to write a blog post about how to generate ideas, because writers don’t just sit around waiting for story-sparks. They also make them, from scratch, with nothing more than ink and spit.

So here are some exercises I’ve used to come up with story-seeds—which, after a little daydreaming and notebook time, can grow into Fully Fledged Ideas:

OPEN THE DICTIONARY

Let's get this out of the way: words are not just words. They're worlds. One word can spark a whole novel, or a whole universe.

So, open the dictionary to a random page and choose a word that reverberates at the same frequency as your heart.

Trick. Cinnamon. Dulcet. Sabotage.

Slip. Porridge. Leviathan. Herringbone.

Got a word?

Great.

Now take that word and play with it.

What if it were the name of a character? “Herringbone Linx was having a terrible day.”

What if it were the name of a world? “In the town of Porridge, gruel made people sick.”

Keep going until you find yourself in a world you recognise as your own.

THE TITLE GAME

I got this one from Ray Bradbury.

Take a couple of words and combine them into titles. (You could even put a bunch of words in a hat, and pick combinations out.)

The Cinnamon Trick.

A Trick of Cinnamon.

Cinnamon Trick and the Solstice Lampshade.

Ask yourself, if this were the title of a book, what would it be about?

Write, write, write.

Keep going until you find something—a spark or feeling—that makes your chest bloom with roses.

TURN A SONG INTO A BOOK

1. Find a song you love.

2. Take a look at the lyrics.

3. Make a story out of your favourite line.

Here’s one my favourite lines from "Possibly Maybe" by Björk:

I suck my tongue

In remembrance of you

Hmmm, okay. Who’s sucking their tongue? A girl. A girl who’s just bitten into an apple. Okay, maybe an apple is too obvious. A guava, then. Or a kiwi. Or a fruit with wings called a featherberry that can only be picked by the brokenhearted. . .

Who is this girl? She's a girl who’s just been reminded of something—who’s standing, after taking a sour bite of featherberry, in an orchard of memories. . . 

Keep going until your heart shatters a little bit.

A NOUN + THE UNEXPECTED

Choose a noun.

(Choose one consciously, or open the dictionary and scan until you find one.)

Then put another word with that noun.

An unexpected word.

For instance, if your noun is glove, don’t use leather or velvet. How about forgiving? The Forgiving Glove. We could work with that.

Once you’ve got an odd combination, free write for a page or two, starting with a phrase that incorporates your title in some way:  

"The gloves she wore were not forgiving."

"It was common cause in Flaunton Heights that a woman could not forgive a man if her hands were ungloved."

Keep digging until you find a gem.

*

So there you have it. Some exercises for generating ideas when your soul feels as dry as the Namibian desert. 

All these exercises are variations on the same theme: words make worlds. You're a writer, and therefore a universe-maker. All you really need is one word that makes you shiver. So start there.

Remember to read, and to play, and to delight. Ideas are drawn to joy like bugs to a lamp.

And if one of you wants to write a book called The Forgiving Glove, please, go right ahead. . .

xxx

 

what my hair taught me about writing

From the day I was born until the time I started school, I loved my hair. I had no reason to believe that it wasn't beautiful. 

But when I entered Grade 1, teachers told me my hair didn’t look “neat” enough, even when it was tied up. In Grade 2, a girl started calling me "Frizz Pop", which was a clever pun because we used to eat these lollipops called Fizz Pops, but which nonetheless humiliated me. By Grade 3, when I was eight-turning-nine, I’d realised that my hair was not what most people considered beautiful. All my friends were girls with very pale skin and long, glossy hair. I had olive skin and wild curls.

I didn’t fit.

I spent about the next ten years fighting with my hair. I used to tie it up, still wet, in a tight band, gelling it down in the front to tame the soft baby hairs that stood up obstinately. When I got a bit older, I’d get it blown out at a salon every now and then and people would say, “You look so pretty with straight hair!” not realising the insult contained in their compliment. I would spend one or two days feeling good about my hair, but eventually I’d have to wet it, and the curls would come back, and everyone would go back to saying, “You’d be so much prettier if your hair were straight.” I believed them.  

But then something changed.

When I was nineteen, I went to Israel.

For the first time in my life, I saw girls and women celebrating their curls. They had cropped bobs and wild pixies, capes of dark curls down their backs. Their hair looked like mine—but they didn’t fight against it. They loved it.  

When I got home, I stopped straightening my hair. I started being gentle with it. I combed it with my fingers and left glossy beads of conditioner in it and I let it be. I loved it. And it loved me back.

I never get insults about my hair now. In fact, it’s the opposite. Most of the time, people tell they wish they had hair like mine. Maybe it’s because I’m not in school anymore, or maybe it’s because I take better care of it now, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s because I love it.

So what does all of this have to do with writing?

Well, your writing style is a little like your hair. You’re born with it. Sure, you can improve and develop. But there’s something at the heart of your writing that’s there from the get go. What you notice. What you care about. The kinds of words and sentences you like to use. 

So treat your words like I treat my curls. Be gentle. Honour them. Don’t mess with them too much—with the words and themes and stories that spring naturally from your being. Let them be.

Your job as a writer is to love yourself, just as your job as a person is to love yourself. (Yes, your job is to send love into the world, too—but how can you do that if you hate yourself?)

If you love your words, they’ll love you back. And others—not everyone, but the right people—will see them for what they really are: beautiful and strange and unruly and awesome and completely, completely unique.

No blow out required.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

how to find your voice

Voice is really important to me—as a reader and as a writer.

My favourite books are ones whose narrators seem to reinvent language—CHIME, ROOFTOPPERS, THE KINGDOM OF LITTLE WOUNDS, THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, THE BLOODY CHAMBER AND OTHER STORIES, THE HANDMAID’S TALE, THE FOLK KEEPER, THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN.

I struggle to get started with a draft until I’ve found the voice of the narrator, and my writing is often described as "voicey".  

You could say that voice is something I’m obsessed with.

But what is it, really?

In the publishing world, voice is a term used by literary agents and editors to describe the quality of a writer’s prose.

They’ll say things like, “I like the concept, but the voice didn’t grab me.” Or: “I love the voice here! I’d follow this character anywhere.” (Which is actually something my literary agent said to me when I sent her an early draft of THE TURNAWAY GIRLS.) (And I love her for it.)

When you boil it down, voice is diction, rhythm, metaphor. It’s structure and sentence length and punctuation and repetition.

Voice is basically words doing what they do best.

But it’s also this ephemeral quality that a piece of writing either has or doesn’t have—a quality that makes you want to keep reading, that connects deeply to your soul, that makes you go, “I can’t get enough of this!”

It's because of this that I think the idea of voice can be extended.

Voice isn't just how you write.

It's who you are.

This work happens off the page.

It starts with this: your life is argument for something. If there’s no argument in your life, there won’t be any argument in your writing. And by argument I mean: energy, drive, forward-motion.

If you don’t yet know what your life is an argument for, that’s okay. Here are some questions to get you started:

What do I have nightmares about?

What’s my deepest fear?

What makes me angry?

What do I love?

Who do I love?

What am I willing to fight for?

What problem in the world do I want to solve?

What is my most painful memory?

You’ll often hear writers say, “Write what you’re afraid of,” or, “Write the book that won’t leave you alone.” And I completely agree.

Here’s why: if you’re afraid of a project or you can’t stop thinking about a project, it’s more likely to be connected with themes, ideas and characters you care about. It's as simple (and as complicated) as that.

I would say that about 90% of voice is being true to yourself. The rest is craft and that can be learnt—through reading a lot and writing a lot, to put it simply—but the real work of voice starts away from your laptop or notebook.

It’s starts with living.

It’s starts with knowing yourself.

how to hope

If you’re a creative person trying to Make a Thing, you’ve probably met your fair share of people who’ve told you that it’s dangerous to hope.  

They’ve probably told you this with a tilted head and well-meaning sympathy in their eyes, as though they Know Better.

They’ve probably said, “Don’t get me wrong, you should write that book/paint that portrait/design that line of poodle-shaped ceramics—just don’t expect anything from it. That way, you won’t feel let down when it doesn’t work out.”

To be fair, you’ve probably even told yourself this.

(Well, if you’re me, you have.)

I’ve had people say this kind of thing to me a lot.

But I have this really revolutionary way of dealing with it. (Not really.)

I simply don’t listen.

See, if I listened, I would lose hope pretty quickly. And I can’t afford to do that.

Because I run on hope.

Hope is the petrol I put in my tank. It’s what kindles my creative fire. Hope is the thing that keeps me going. (Okay, and coffee.) Bottom line is: if I’m not hoping, I’m not working.

What do I mean by hoping?

I mean that when I’m writing a book, I believe all the good things it is possible to believe about a book.

I believe my agent will love it. I believe it will sell. I believe it will find an audience. I believe people will adore it as much as I do.

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s pretty hard to maintain a sense of hope in what sometimes feels like a never-ending maelstrom of Horrible Things.

But I do it anyway.

Because it’s the only thing I can do.

So in case you need a top up, here are some of the things I do to keep the positive vibes alive:

I give myself pep talks

Sometimes I’ll be like that bunny in the “you’re gonna do great today” meme and I’ll literally stand in front of a mirror and tell myself to keep going.

Sometimes I’ll write emails to myself when I’m backing up drafts of a manuscript. (When I was doing this for THE TURNAWAY GIRLS, I sent an email to myself that said, ‘Keep going. This is going to be your debut.’)

Often, in the mornings, while I’m having my first cup of coffee, I’ll write down all my dreams for a particular project.

Some days I don’t need a pep talk. Other days, I need three. (I find this is directly proportionate to the amount of time I’ve spent with The Head Tilters.)

A pep talk can be a flurry of words typed out on your laptop, or a whisper to yourself in the quiet of the evening.

It can be anything, as long as its central message reminds you why you’re Making a Thing and pushes you to keep going.

I hang out in bookshops

Bookshops are basically rooms full of realised dreams. They’re physical, touchable proof that the book I’m writing has the potential to become real.

Pick up a book in your genre. Run your hand over the cover. Feel its weight. Smell its pages.

Can you picture your book? Great. Now go home and write it.

(Note: you can adjust this technique to suit anything you’re trying to make. If you’re painting, go look at some paintings. If you’re making furniture, go to a design expo, etc.)

I block out negativity

Okay, so what if you’re at a dinner party and you tell someone you’re writing a book and they look at you in a way that makes you feel like you’re about the size of a grain of salt? Yeah. We’ve all been there. I don’t really have advice for that situation because it sucks and basically the only solution is to cry your eyes out and then fill yourself up with hope again.

But here’s my advice for avoiding all the pain to begin with:

DON’T TELL ANYONE YOU’RE WRITING A BOOK.

Seriously.

Or, only tell people who will hold your dreams with the delicate wonder they deserve.

You don’t have to tell anyone your creative secrets. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for how you’re spending your time. Keep your impossible dreams safe until they’re strong enough to face the critics.

I have conversations with my future self

I like to do this in the evenings, when everything’s quiet and tinted with purple. I lie on my bed, or on the floor. I close my eyes. I picture meeting my future self in my favourite coffee shop. I ask her how things are going and imagine the best possible answers.

I remember all the crazy, improbable, wonderful things that have happened to me already

I was born. (Seriously, look up the statistics on that one.) I met the love of my life in a coffee shop when I was eighteen. I sent poems out randomly and without query letters and somehow they were published before I was 20. I connected with my (perfect) agent. My (amazing) editor bought my book. I've received funding and met incredible people and I have the best poodle in the world. 

These are just a few examples.

So much of our lives is miracle.

I keep working

If hope begets work, then work begets hope, too. Enough said.

If you run on hope, don’t let the world tell you you’re naïve or childish or silly for believing in your work.

Hoping is a radical act. It’s a rebellion.

Hoping is getting up every day and working and working and working even though you don’t know if your book will sell or your opera will be appreciated or your sculpture will find its way into someone’s living room.

You’re brave and strong and amazing, and you can do this.

We can all do this.  

(I just realised this whole blog post is a pep talk.)

(You’re welcome.)

(I needed it, too.)