Where Do Characters Come From?

Right now, I’m looking for characters. I have a new, delicious novel a-brewin’ and I’m looking for people to fill the pages. But where do they come from?

Main characters I have known and loved…

Kate Fullerton, the main character of The Tea Chest, arrived between the time it took for me to sniff a selection of teas in a tea shop and the two hours it took me to drive home. Her personality was pretty easy to pin down, which made life simple.

Maria Lindsay, the main character of The Beekeeper’s Secret, was such a strong ‘force’ that she pushed aside the novel I was trying to write and instead demanded a whole novel all to herself. She was a dream character, always on my shoulder, always ‘there’ in the space, waiting to talk. She made writing that novel the easiest of all my novels so far.

Tansy Butterfield, the other main character of Beekeeper’s, was based on a woman that sat opposite me on a ‘coast to airport’ shuttle bus I once took. I sat on that shuttle for several hours and she was diagonally opposite me and I had so much time to observe her that I created Tansy around her. The woman was tall, with long limbs, a long nose and dark hair, and she looked like a runner or a ballerina. She was around the right age (29) and I jotted down notes on my phone as we zoomed the highway.

Christmas Livingstone (main character of The Chocolate Promise), on the other hand, took a lot longer to come into ‘view’ and was in fact the third iteration of that character for that book, although she chose her own name very strongly when, one day, I asked her, ‘What is your name?’ Quick as lightning, I heard “Christmas Livingstone” in reply. I said, ‘Really? That’s your name?!’ But it had been delivered so decisively that I couldn’t tell her otherwise.

Supporting characters I have known and loved…

Supporting characters are generally my favourite ones to work with. They tend be the most clearly defined, often larger-than-life, and bring humour, or deep pain, or great adversity. I find that it is often the relationships between my main characters and supporting characters that allow us to see extra dimensions and great truth in our heroes, who will often speak of the unspeakable with a supporting character when it’s too difficult to do so with a close family member, for example. In my first draft, my supporting characters are generally a bit quiet, but start to really find their stride around the third draft, bringing so much more depth and richness to the story.

Often, supporting characters just ‘turn up’ as I’m writing, with little to no forethought at all. Caesar, the Golden Retriever in The Chocolate Promise was a great example of that. I was writing a scene between Lincoln and his father when suddenly I ‘heard’ a scratching on the back door. I thought, ‘What is that?’ So I sent Lincoln over to the door to open it to find a hungry, unloved old dog there. It was as though I saw it happening in the same time zone as Lincoln did. Caesar was a total star character, one who stole every scene he was in, I think.

One of the greatest joys I have with supporting characters is that, as they often turn up unannounced, I might not know why they are actually in the story at all until I’m halfway through the book, or later, and then all the threads come together and I have a truly satisfying moment of thinking, ‘Ohhhh, that’s why you’re here!’ I had that moment recently, while writing the first draft of The Tuscan Feast (to be published April 2018), with Sven, a young Swedish man who turned up unannounced and then later earned his place in the story so perfectly.

Lulu Divine, a fierce and fabulous nursing home character in The Chocolate Promise, was actually sixteen years old and a trick rodeo rider last time I’d ‘seen’ her. She was a character in a Young Adult novel (set in 1958) that I wrote many years ago (but was never published) and one day just popped up in a scene I was writing, surprising me greatly, both because she had walked so unexpectedly into a different novel but also because that wasn’t how I’d ever imagined her life would turn out!

So where do characters come from?

In short, characters come from anywhere and everywhere. They might pop out of the ether, like Maria Lindsay did, or they might be awkwardly wrangled out of thin air and onto the page and then worked and worked until they are ‘real’, like Christmas Livingstone. They might be someone on a bus who catches my eye, who I then take a mental picture of, like a template, and then build from there, like Tansy Butterfield. Writers always have troves of stories that have never made it to print and these can be absolute diamond mines of fully formed characters just waiting their turn for the right story, as was the case for Lulu Divine.

And then there is this man.

old man

I found myself walking behind him in the streets of Rome on my way to the Trevi Fountain and there was something (something!) about him that made me pull my phone out and take a photo. A week later, sitting under the trees out the front of a sixteenth century villa in Tuscany, the memory of this man came back to me.

Samuel.

Samuel was the way into the story of The Tuscan Feast for my main character, Lara Foxleigh, who finds herself following him on her way to the Trevi Fountain.

But that’s as far as my journey and Lara’s journey went together. After that, it was up to Lara to lead the way out of Rome, and a whole novel rolled out in front of me.

 

 

 

Clara, the no-longer-unsung-hero

Dear readers

 

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(Okay, it’s not actually Clara; but it could be. Image copyright ‘minoir’, Flickr)

 

This is Clara Finlay, who shall forever henceforth no longer be an unsung hero. Clara is one of the very rare breeds of professionals who work under completely unrealistic timeframes with nearly always unreasonable demands, with a near-zero error rate, who isn’t paid nearly enough and almost never gets any credit. What’s worse, it’s really difficult for these people to argue for a pay rise because when they do their work at their absolute best… No. One. Can. Tell. They leave no trace; they leave no calling card. They are the ninjas of the publishing industry. They are our editors.

How do I know this? Because I used to be an editor. A good editor, yes, one, worth her weight in salt. But Clara here is a great editor, worth her weight in saffron. I specifically asked (okay, begged) my publisher if I could work with Clara again after working with her on The Chocolate Promise and said, “She will make me work like a sled dog and eat kilos of chocolate but my book will be so much better for it.” And I’m confident to say that during the edit for The Beekeeper’s Secret, both the former and latter came true, and my book is a much, much better novel because of Clara’s nimble ninja fingers.

I’m not talking about picking up typos, spelling mistakes and punctuation errors. This is not what editors do. (Well, yes they do but it’s only a tiny portion of what they do. There is also a proofreader who comes after that who takes a last sweep for those things.) No, what a great editor does is to get inside your mind as an author and somehow know what it is you were trying to say and then help you say it better; get inside your character’s mind and help your character say it better; provide you summaries of reflection, analysing your characters and plots and then showing you what it looks like to a reader (which might be probably is totally different to what it looks like to you as a writer).

A great editor will ask literally hundreds of questions of you. Questions like:

  • Did you realise that you used the word ‘disquiet’ on page 86, 134, 257 and 301? Did you mean to do that?
  • On page 33, Alice shrugs. Why? Is she annoyed, bored, or rude? To which as an author I might think, actually I have no idea why! And then I have to have a conversation with Alice to find out why she is shrugging. And Alice might tell me she is bored, or she might tell me that she is remembering when she was five years old and … a new scene is born that gives an entirely different depth to Alice and infinitesimally more satisfaction to the reader.
  • This here, where you reference legal document XYZ and you say it means ABC… I looked it up and to me it meant XXX. Which is it? To which, I need to go and research the document again and find clarity, or I might decide to remove it altogether and rewrite the paragraph around it.
  • I think you have a timeline problem. In 1975 Mary was 6, but on page X in 1984 she is 23, and then a decade later on page XX she is 35 and her sister, who was 8 in 1974 is now… Could you check throughout? OMG, I hate these questions! There is a lot of chocolate eating over these ones as I pull out my calculator to start all over again and search the ENTIRE bloomin’ document to find EVERY instance where this could be wrong! (Cocktails may also ensue.)
  • I’m not sure you can say this? I think it might be copyright. Oops! Lucky!
  • Do you think George would say this? He seems a bit more conservative to me.
  • Do you think Marcia would think this? She seems a bit more enlightened to me.
  • And my favourite: NQR?.. which is editor shorthand for politely saying, “not quite right” or sometimes written more bluntly as, “recast?”. For a blunt interpretation, it means: I think you’ve been a bit lazy and could work a bit harder here and make this a better sentence. Having a bad day, were we? Would you like to try again?

A great editor lets you, the author, solve all the problems yourself, and be in charge of your words and intentions at every step, and yet you would never have gotten there if they hadn’t probed you and asked the difficult questions in the first place.

And on and on we go, for 100,000 words, or around 320 pages. If your editor has worked on hard copy, by the time you’ve gone through and accepted/ rejected/ changed/ added/ expanded/ explained your way through with your red pen, your pages look like a murder scene.

If it’s been done in Word with ‘track changes’, it will be so colourful you’ll think mardi gras has arrived in your document and you’ll barely be able to read the words for the highlighting, colour and added notes.

But when it’s all cleaned up and it’s sparkling white and shiny again, there will be no sign of the ninja whose swift, sharp knife had cut up those pages.

She will have done her job and disappeared once more into the night.

But I want you to know, Clara (and all editors whose diligence graces my books’ pages), that I see you. To me, you are heroes.

I know how hard you work.

I know that you are almost always the last person to touch a manuscript before it goes to print and therefore countless others before you have missed their deadline and pushed the timeframe further and further behind until someone slaps it on your desk and tells you that you can have two days to do two weeks worth of work and it has to be your best work ever, despite the fact that it might take you two days just to read the blasted manuscript, let alone touch it with a pencil!

I know that you’re financially undervalued. I know that it’s near impossible to argue for your worth when the only time someone notices you is when you’ve missed a typo on page 98 and a reader phones the publisher to complain. They didn’t see the four thousand and sixteen things you did; they just saw the one thing you missed.

I know that most people have no idea how skilled you are, how much breadth of general knowledge you need, how sensitive you are, what a great sense of humour you have, or what value you actually add other than picking up spelling mistakes.

I know that when a book does well that you might miss out on the awards and the travel and the publicity and cocktails.

But you will never miss out on my gratitude and deep love for the great work you do. Plus actual gifts. If no one else gives you gifts, I will!

From the bottom of my heart, thank you!

 

A Writer’s New Year Resolutions, 2015

New Year 2015 formed from sparking digits over black background** Is your new year’s writing resolution to go on a writing retreat? You can join me in October on the Sunshine Coast! **

Each year I set specific new year’s resolutions just for the writing corner of my life, so it’s once again time to do that. The thing I find interesting about these lists is that once I’ve written them down, I don’t think I look at them again until the end of the year when I wonder what I wrote and how far I went towards achieving them. But it’s always fascinating to me how much of them I do unconsciously throughout the year, just because I’ve listed them.

So, for 2014, I set three goals:

  1. Stay calm and have a cup of tea. (I think I did this pretty well for the most part, bobbing up and down on the waves of my first year in publication. There was stress, sure, but I actually have a written plan now for how to handle ‘the things that went wrong’ in 2014 so I feel more prepared to greet 2015.)
  2. Turn guilt into gratitude. (I got better at integrating the working mother stress as I went along and I feel much more settled now that my toddler is in a good early learning centre two days a week. Though I had to work through a lot of guilt to get there, both he and I look forward to those days so that makes everyone happy.)
  3. Protect the creative process. (Again, I think I got better at feeding my unicorn through the year, and my most recent efforts to do this include my weekly challenge of Creative Tuesday.)

I also said I’d throw in some writing room decorating, and I had a big breakthrough with that in 2014 and am still enjoying my new relationship to my room, actively thinking about nurturing it so that it can nurture me in return.

So, for 2015. Here goes:

taxing-solutionsI only have one resolution this year, and it’s a big one. It’s the one that scares me the most, that challenges my brain, and pushes me into spaces I don’t like to go.

Numbers.

Tax!!!!! GST. BAS. IAS.

Blech!! That’s how I feel about it now. But by the end of this year, I want to feel like, Pft, it’s nothing. More than that, it’s my friend.

The whole tax stuff around writing is huge, difficult stuff, especially if you are a Word Person. A non-number person. The very gifts that make you a good writers, well, they kind of let you down a bit with the whole number crunchy stuff.

I will write a whole post about tax and writing sometime this year to share with you what I’ve learned. But for now, let me summarise by saying that if you have another job where you’re earning a salary, and then you get a book deal, then you really need to get on top of this tax stuff because writing income can shoot you over into a new tax bracket and, trust me, that can leave you with a nasty tax surprise. Also, after they’ve cleaned you out of money to pay that nasty tax bill, then you’ll then be asked to pay tax in advance, almost straight away. And that might be scary as all hell too.

And of course the rub here is that if you earn money from royalties, YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MUCH YOU WILL EARN!! It could be $10 or $10million. There’s a big bloody difference between those numbers.

I am going to enrol in a bookkeeping course. (My stomach actually plummeted as I wrote that.) I don’t ever want to feel disempowered about my numbers. I don’t want to have to rely on an accountant to tell me absolutely everything. (But, oh my, I still need an accountant.) I need to understand the basics; I need to HAVE THE LANGUAGE to even be able to TALK about money. And I need that before I can fill out crazy ATO forms.

And my accountant and I are going to check in each quarter and try to estimate the numbers as we go.

I’m thinking this will take me all year to get on top of this. And so, that is it. My one resolution. The very opposite of what you would think would be a ‘writing resolution’ and yet I have to do it because I have become afraid to earn money because I am afraid of tax bills. And that’s just ridiculous. That’s not a signal I want to send to the universe. So I am declaring it. This time next year, I’m going to feel confident about the money. I’m going to shout, ‘Bring on the book sales, people! I can handle it!’

Bring on 2015.

Top Ten Tips: The Writer (and Mother) as an Athlete

Written on my fridge right now. Remind yourself--you are an athlete!
Written on my fridge right now. Remind yourself–you are an athlete!

I have often been heard to say that I feel like I’m running a marathon every day. And I hear a lot of other mothers say it too. What can we do? Here are some thoughts.

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I am an unashamed ‘Swiftie’ (that is, a fan of Taylor Swift), and I once heard her say how much time she spent at the gym. Now, I’ve been to a Taylor Swift concert and trust me that entire performance is more than any gym work out could be. Why on earth did she need to go to the gym as well? I asked this of my husband, who is a physiotherapist.

‘It’s a huge misconception,’ he said. ‘I see it a lot in guys who work in labouring jobs. They think that because they’re active all day that they don’t need to do any more exercise. But what they don’t understand it that to work continuously at their optimum performance, they actually need to be fitter and stronger than what they are required to do.’

Big. Lightbulb. Moment.

To get through everything in my life I need to think of myself as an endurance athlete.

A green smoothie I made with a stick blender - banana, flaxseeds, spinach leaves, fresh mint, parsley
A green smoothie I made with a stick blender – banana, flaxseeds, spinach leaves, fresh mint, parsley

It’s not okay to be just fit enough to do our jobs. We have to be MORE fit so we can do it easily AND have energy left over to play with our kids and have quality time with our spouses and make awesome food and maybe even play and have fun.

‘Writer’ and ‘athlete’ don’t normally conjure up similarities. In fact, most writers I know complain about how sedentary their job is and how much weight they’ve gained and how unfit they’ve become. It’s not even just that we’re sitting at a computer for many hours a day, as many people do who work in an office. It’s also that we don’t have to leave the house, so there’s a serious decrease in all the incidental exercise you get if you have to walk to and from a bus or a train, or escape outside the building for a walk during your lunch hour, or have to walk from one side of the building to the other to talk to a co-worker. I noticed this dramatically when I gave up work that required me to leave the house. My weight bloomed, almost overnight.

After writing for thirteen years through full-time jobs, part-time jobs, and even unemployment, I finally got my agent just five weeks after my son was born, and three book contracts very soon after. Suddenly, I had to juggle first-time new motherhood with serious contractual requirements, severe sleep deprivation, renovating a house and moving, and living in the country and driving obscene hours in the car with a newborn. I coped, but only just. And with a lot of coffee and chocolate.

I’ve come to understand that if I’m going to have longevity in the game of being an author, and be energetically and emotionally present for my child, husband, family and so on, AND look after my self, my animals, house, friends and all of that, then I have to think of myself as an athlete. I need to train regularly — and yes, I do mean with physical activity. I need to fuel my body with the best resources possible: protein, vitamins, juices, power smoothies, organics, fresh produce. I need to put energy IN in order to get energy OUT.

It’s so simple, isn’t it? And yet it’s so easy to overlook. And the more tired we are, the easier it is to reach for coffee and a bowl of cereal for dinner rather than juicing vegetables and cooking energy-enhancing foods. It becomes a vicious cycle, one that’s very hard to break.

This is still a work in progress for me, but I’ve been steadily improving for the past couple of months. And here are my Top Ten Tips for what’s worked for me. Maybe some of them will help you too.

  • Design a daily checklist of everything you feel you need to (or want to) do to help your body. Most of the time, I get so lost in the work I’m doing that I truly and simply forget to take my vitamins, get on the cross trainer, do my physiotherapy exercises, make a fresh juice, defrost something from the freezer. Checklist. Get one. Leave it on the bench in the kitchen and tick it off over the course of the day. Write down everything you eat. You’ll start to see patterns and it helps keep you on track.
  • You don’t need an expensive juicer! You can do almost anything with a stick blender. I was feeling blocked about juicing because we didn’t have a juicer (cheap or expensive) and have no cupboard space or bench space to have one. Then I worked out that you can do almost anything with a stick a blender. Throw ingredients in and whiz. Simple. The only things it will struggle with are really hard vegetables, like beetroot or carrot. BUT, if you want them, grate them first and throw them in. Simple.
  • Protein for breakfast. Salmon, eggs, protein smoothies (as supplements, not as replacements), steak, baked beans, mushrooms. Get your high quality protein in early in the day (rather than at the end). It reduces sugar cravings and keeps you going longer.
  • Grow some leafy greens. Seriously, spinach, kale and chard are SO simple to grow (I’m growing them in styrofoam boxes), so cheap and quick to sow from seed, and so fabulous to pick fresh and throw into a juice or smoothie for some LIVING food that is packed full of vitamins and energy boosting goodness. IMG_3178
  • Start the day with a fruit bowl. In our house, as I know is true of many others, we have resistance to eating fruit unless it is chopped up. So we now start the day with a fruit bowl of freshly chopped fruit. We take turns at making it in the morning while the other person is generally tending to our toddler. Your fruit is done for the day and it is yum yum yummy. (We also like to top the fruit with extras like chia seeds, flaxseeds or goji berries — you can buy in advance and store in jars or paper bags and throw them on).
  • Exercise. 20 minutes. Any time, any where. Every day. There is always something you can do. Personally, I am challenged with multiple (and complicated) rheumatic conditions, I’m always carrying at least one severe injury at any given time (which usually lasts a good six months or more) and have to be so careful about how I exercise. But I married a physio. And what I discovered was that it is a (good) physiotherapist’s job (and calling in life) to find a way for you to move. And they will. Example, if I lift even 1kg weights, I sprain my wrists. So, my husband bought me strap on ankle weights and strapped them around my forearms so no load goes through the joint. Presto. Problem solved. Find yourself a GOOD physio (because, like all things, they aren’t all created equal).
  • Stop drinking coffee. Oh boy, this can be hard. I never really drank coffee until I had a baby. (True story: My husband had never had a coffee in his life until we walked into the hospital to have our baby and he decided that it was going to take a while so perhaps he should start. It took him the next two years to give up.) After I had Flynn, I was shattered, in every way. Coffee became the only thing that would keep me safe on the roads and even vaguely able to do my job. But by the time Flynn was two years old, I realised that I couldn’t keep drinking coffee. It stimulated my adrenals and gave me a false sense of energy when really it was just draining me even more. Now, my rule is that if I think I need coffee, I will make a chai. And if I still feel like having coffee after the chai, then I’m allowed to have one. But I never do.
  • Spirulina / Power Greens. When all else fails, throw a teaspoon of high-density greens in powdered form into a juice. You’d be amazed.
  • Vitamin B. You burn lots of vitamin B when you’re stressed. Make sure you’ve got enough, are getting enough, or supplement with enough. Iron. Same goes there. I’d fallen into a false sense of safety with iron. I used to have to take it all the time but I thought things had changed. Wrong. I didn’t even have a clue until a GP randomly tested for it and phoned to tell me it was below the line. Wow. What a difference to your life iron will make.
  • Dark chocolate! Oh yes indeed! Dark chocolate is good, good, good for you. It’s a power food, people. Eat it. (But it has to be dark! I can eat up to 85% cocoa quite comfortably, but if you’re just beginning, try something around 40 or 50% and build up.)

How to Keep Writing (When Life Gets in the Way)

I’m far from an expert at this, but I’ve had to learn really fast how to deal with high levels of writing commitments (i.e. publishing contracts with deadlines and money and stuff) with a baby/toddler in tow). And right now, I’m in the middle of my structural edit for my second novel, with a deadline this month so it can move through editing and onto the printers in time to hit the shelves in April next year (yay!).

And, timing of all timings, our household has been hit with one nasty virus after another–I’m talking flu, gastro, and now my toddler has a strain of a particularly nasty chest virus that’s knocked him down for more than a week. And when your very young child is sick, there’s not a lot you can do other than drop everything and look after them. They can’t go to daycare (if that’s what they do) and no one else (even the most doting aunties and grandparents) will want to look after your germ-infested, dripping, feverish, sneezing, snotting, wailing darling child. Quite reasonably.

Act like a squirrel: prepare, prepare, prepare
Act like a squirrel: prepare, prepare, prepare

Add to this the extra effort required with washing, sterilising and disinfecting, trips to the doctor, late-night runs to the pharmacy, the emotional stress of watching your little darling crying with fever or pain, or simply because they can’t breathe well enough to actually get any sleep, their rabid wrestling when you try to administer medication five times a day, and their likely constant need for affection and comfort, and you’ve got yourself a pretty intense time, and not a lot of mental space.

And then there’s the stress that your work is falling way behind.

So here’s what I’ve learnt to do: act like a squirrel. Be singled-minded about preparing for the future. Give up any idea of getting any serious work done and simply nest. Shop for food. Cook food. Freeze food. Plan meals. Do tidying and cleaning where possible. Wash clothes. Order supplies. Pay bills. Make phone calls. Send emails. Essentially, pretend you are leaving home soon to go away for a two-week holiday. You can do these things in little snatches of time between nursing, and they don’t take much mental power. And then the very second that the crisis has passed, you are set to go. Leave all that domestic chaos behind and sink blissfully into the newfound time and freedom you have so efficiently created while nesting alongside your sick child (or sick dog, or couch-surfing nephew, or whatever else turned up unexpectedly at your door). Right now, my freezer is filling and I’m on top of the washing. I’m just waiting for the season to pass so I can dive back into my book and enjoy all those nuts I squirrelled away during the storm of relentless ills.

Thoughts on Writing: The Clydesdale and the Unicorn

This article is featured in this month’s issue of WQ magazine, the official publication of the Queesland Writers Centre (a super resource for writers at all stages).

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I am most at home with my Clydesdale
I am most at home with my Clydesdale

I believe there are two horses residing within me: a Clydesdale and a unicorn.

I have seven horses of my own, used to run a horse rescue charity, and recently published Horse Rescue: inspiring stories of second-chance horses and the lives they changed (Penguin). 2014 is also the Chinese Year of the Horse. So it seems a good time to tell you about my invisible Clydesdale and unicorn.

They are the two sets of my writing self—the practical and the magical, heaven and earth, yin and yang… however you like to think of them. And I need them both in order to do my job, answer my vocational calling, find inspiration and meet my deadlines. The challenge is to get them to cooperate despite their very different agendas.

The Clydesdale is a workhorse. It is there every day, in its harness, ploughing the fields. It shows up if it’s feeling weary or injured, if the weather is poor, and even if its handler is asking too much of it. It is stoic, steady, completely task-oriented, wearing its blinkers so it can only see the path in front. It likes a schedule, turns up on time, and enjoys warm mash at the end of a hard day’s labour.

This one, I find a lot more difficult to handle.
This one, I find a lot more difficult to handle.

The unicorn, on the other hand, is flighty. It has wings. (Hey, it’s my unicorn; it can fly if it wants to.) It doesn’t have to stay in the field. It doesn’t even have to show up! And I can’t make it turn up because it has wings. It can go wherever it wants to go. It is fickle, doesn’t like to tough it out in the rain, likes to paint its shiny mane and tail with rainbow nail polish, fancies champagne and chocolate, and would far rather use its time slipping in and out of portals to other worlds than slogging it out in the mud. Time and deadlines mean nothing to the universe-hopping unicorn. It cares not for plans, structure or linear plotlines.

They are both powerful. They are both necessary. And they both need to be fed or they will wither, starve and die. They tell me they are struggling in different ways. The Clydesdale gets grumpy, physically sore and tired (though will struggle on long past when it should). The unicorn is more prone to tantrums, melancholy, catastrophising and tears. But when they start to act out and show their discomfort, I’ve learned that I need to pay attention and do something about it.

The Clydesdale is concerned with the physical world, so to feed it I need to make sure its base needs are met. To give it energy to do its hard work in the field, it needs good quality, energising food. Caffeine doesn’t cut it. I’m talking vegetables, fruit, protein, antioxidants, organics and juices. I need to cut out the foods that slow it down, like sugar, dairy and caffeine. It needs attention to its muscles and fitness—ergonomics, gym-based strengthening programs, injury (RSI) rehabilitation, rest, an occasional day off, and massage.

The unicorn is concerned with mental and emotional wellness. The unicorn has a huge responsibility for bringing in new ideas and content. If I don’t feed the unicorn, I’ll simply drain it of all its life and colour. To feed the unicorn, I must supply it with imagery and experience. I need to take it on artistic adventures. I need to fill it with sensory stimulus—music, art, film, stories, nature, foods, excursions and new knowledge. I need to give it freedom to explore without constraints, and silence and gentle spaces to hear it speak its dreams without judging, shaming or cutting them down before they’re fully expressed.

If you’re anything like me, you might be firmer friends with one than the other. For me, I’m more comfortable with the Clydesdale. I will happily work around the clock for something I’m passionate about. But it is harder for me to allow my unicorn untethered freedom to indulge its whims and fancies—in other words, it’s hard for me to play, to lighten up. Perhaps for you, it is more difficult to harness the discipline and work ethic of the Clydesdale. You have no problem going to the theatre and dreaming up stories but there is resistance to putting pen to paper day after day.

Wherever you’re at, it’s okay. Use your strength to its advantage and treat yourself kindly while you learn to encourage and nurture the weaker relationship in this pair. One day, they’ll both be pulling the same plough together at the same time, and it will be a fully functioning pink plough with sparkly wings, churning out a great story, with a strong structure, delivered on time, and with just the right amount of magic.

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p.s. I also have two human identities…

Horse Rescue is published under the name Joanne Schoenwald.

The Tea Chest is published as Josephine Moon.

Thoughts on Writing: Editing a Novel is Like Renovating a House

We’ve been renovating a 100+ year old house now for more than 18 months, and I’ve edited quite a few manuscripts in my time (having been an editor before becoming a career writer) and if there’s one thing I can say definitively, it’s that editing a novel and renovating a house are the same beasts. There are different stages to editing and they have to go in this order, or you’re setting yourself up for a world of hurt and re-work down the track. Want to know how to edit a novel? Think like a renovator.

Demolition

images-3Oh, how I enjoyed this part of renovating our house. Bulldozing. Jackhammering. Tearing down. Knocking down. Ripping up. Throwing out. Fun, fun, fun. We had to remove the toxic waste (asbestos). We had to tear down a significant extension on the house that was teeming with live termites. We had to cut down enormous trees that were touching the house, smothering it and threatening its very survival. Hey, I am a tree hugger; I have difficulty removing weeds. But if they’re in the wrong place and are threatening the entire building they have to go. So too does the useless, poisonous, distracting stuff in your novel. The plots that go no where. The characters that don’t belong there. The pages of useless stuff that slows your plot down to a girding halt. Get rid of it. “Cut your darlings.”

 

Structural improvement

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This stuff is huge. This is where you ask the really tough questions: what am I trying to achieve here? Where do I want this to go? What style of project is this? Who is my reader (buyer)? This is the stuff that will make you cry with sheer frustration and jump in the air with elation when you get it right. And far, FAR too many writers skip this and jump to the next stage. But this is where the money is!!!

After the demolition came the urgent structural improvements. The big one for us was to re-stump, a task I once thought was a simple matter, but in fact turned out to be a really trying exercise. The stumps that were there were termite ridden and rotten and the whole house was slumping. We had to get council approval and that meant we had to… wait for it… draw up plans!!! (Do you see where this is going?) What was currently on the house and what did we intend to replace? What material were we going to use (wood, cement, steel)? And the answers to these questions meant we needed an engineer (an expert) to give guidance on how to proceed.

Now, hopefully, your novel isn’t in as much danger as our house was but, even so, it’s fantastic to get an expert, an outside eye, to step into your project and offer some wisdom to make sure you’re going in the right direction and not making things worse for yourself down the track. This is where you need your beta readers–your trusted advisors. (But do tell them to ignore the obvious spelling etc. and spend their valuable time on the big stuff. That’s what you need.)

Having taken care of the must-do structural renovation (and we couldn’t do ANYTHING else to the house until that was done because EVERYTHING else depended on having a level, stable base to work from), we moved on to the fun structural improvements. We’d previously demolished the front stairs (also termite ridden) and built new ones. We pulled out an entire load-bearing wall and put in a load-bearing beam. And then we did another one. We put in new doors. We built in wall where previously there wasn’t wall. We chased the leaks in the roof and plugged them.

All of these types of things can be done in your structural edit and there isn’t a lot of point proceeded to the next stage. There’s no point painting walls if you’re only going to tear them down.

 

Cosmetic renovation

This level of renovation is equivalent to the copy edit stage of your manuscript.images-5

Most of the really hard yakka is done at this point and you won’t need quite as many chocolate runs, coffee or cold beers at the end of the day. This is where we put in a brand new kitchen. Ta da!! Gorgeous. A chandelier. Ka-ching! Polished floorboards. Painted walls. Re-wired the house. Put in an air conditioner.

All these things make it easier to live in the house, which is precisely what you’re doing in the copy edit. You’re finding sentences that could be prettier and making them so. You’re sanding back the excess words and letting the real beauty shine. Everything flows from one area to the next. You’re grammar is straight, tidy and enticing.

 

Sprucing

This is like proofreading. (We aren’t here yet in our house renovation; we’re still working through the cosmetic renovations.) This is like when you’ve images-4got people coming over for dinner, or you want to sell the house. You’re mowing, cleaning, tidying, fluffing and styling. The proofread is your final sweep, your last chance before your visitors arrive to make sure your place is looking its best and nothing’s going to embarrass you (no hidden mould or hair caught in the sink trap).

 

To summarise, there is no point putting flowers on your kitchen bench if you don’t even have one! Make sure you’re editing your novel in the right order. Do the hard work first, the one that will cause you the most sweat, agony and tears and have you saying that you will never, ever do this again for as long as you live. And work your way through to the fun, pretty stuff.