On Vision, Writing, and the Nobel Prize

I wouldn’t say I’m prone to visions really.

The Vision Of Saint Helena

This is Not Me. (The Vision of Saint Helena by Paolo Veronese. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Can’t say that many times I’ve been struck dumb as the Lord has vouchsafed to me a drop-down movie-theatre in front of my eyes where He unravels some mysterious plan (although it did happen once…and no I wasn’t on drugs…and no, that is not what this is about).

Can’t say that, in recent years at least, I’ve been beset with the other kind of vision much either – motivation and direction for my own life, that sense of knowing exactly where I’m headed, what I’m doing, what I want out of life. Sure, I knew the answer to these things in a vague and general way, hopefully as we all do, but sometimes it’s hard to be driven and motivated when, by necessity, your day-to-day life has very little to do with your career goals. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life, and I love what I do and am grateful every day, but I’m not aiming for a career in toilet cleaning, or laundry, or driving kids to music lessons. I don’t want to be a professional Lego builder (oh okay, that one would be fun), and, here’s the rub, the vision for my life I had ten years ago I’d done.

Ten years ago, if you’d asked me, I would have said “I want to travel, and I want to write a book”. Both of those things, for various reasons, seemed wildly out of my grasp at that time. Both, now, I have done.

So. Now what?

Well, go back and travel again is one answer, and publish the book is another, but they’re still vague answers of the not-particularly helpful kind. They’re goals, but they’re not Vision. They’re not propelling me forward, encouraging me to get out of bed in these early hours of a cold morning. They’re true, but they’re not…enough.

I’ve been thinking about this recently. I’ve been planning the rewrites for said book (because it needs them), and trying to pinpoint exactly who I’m telling the story for. It’s one thing to have a goal to write a book. It’s quite another to know exactly who your target audience is and how to reach them, and what specific expectations they have in a novel, especially because I don’t write in a particular genre (thriller/mystery/romance etc).

I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last few weeks, in between toilet cleaning and laundry and driving kids to music lessons and everything else. I’d added a new character, a new storyline to my novel, and I was excited by the things that was bringing up, and the new direction and focus – and all of a sudden I “looked” at the pictures in my mind and I noticed something strange: the new characters and storyline, when I imagined them, appeared in different colours to the rest of my story. Does that sound dumb? (It may help to explain that I have a mild form of synaesthesia, and sometimes I see words in colours). They didn’t fit, they looked as if they’d been cut out of something and pasted there…and I knew the canvas where they did belong too – another novel I’d been struggling to make all the pieces fit.

Have I lost you yet? I don’t have visions but I “saw” my book and the colours were wrong. Yeah. Stick with me a minute, okay?

I realised something else, too: every time I thought about my novel (the one I’m trying to rewrite) the same image turned up in my head, not in a loud, intrusive way, just subtly in the background like the ads on websites that we tend to ignore until we accidentally click on them. It was my grade nine English classroom.

What? I hear you say. You clicked on an ad on the internet for your grade nine English classroom?

NO!! I realised that every time I thought about my book, and who I was writing it for, and why I was writing it, I thought about that class. I thought about reading Lord Of The Flies, and how much it had inspired me at age fourteen, not only in the depth but also the simplicity of the story.

True confession: when I was fourteen I was so impressed with Lord Of The Flies that I decided that when I grew up I wanted to write a book that could win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Don’t laugh.

Oh okay. Go ahead. Laugh.

But that was my vision, and it served me well. It made me write, and research and learn the craft of writing. It made me look for stories to tell, and deeper meanings within those stories. That vision, that lofty goal, made me think, made me learn, made me the thinker I am today.

Here’s an interesting thing. Somewhere along the journey I let go of my vision to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and settled instead for writing a book…maybe that came with realising how hard it was to write a book, let alone a good one. Maybe it came with growing up and realising the silliness of adolescent dreaming. Whatever the reason, the result was that my arrow-sharp focus blunted, widened, in something akin to mock-contentment, and it’s only now I come to realise I lost something in that. It’s like the time my daughter had a go at archery – she didn’t hit the target. She didn’t even hit the hay-bales the target was attached to. Her arrow fell a metre or two short, flat and lifeless on the grass.

If I don’t have a vision – a target – my arrow will land on the grass, and I will think that’s okay. If I don’t have a target I won’t have the determination and drive to go get my arrow again and strengthen my muscles and my pull until my arrow DOES reach the hay-bales, and, eventually, even the target.

I’m glad I’ve found my vision again. It’s helped me hone down the knowledge of exactly what I want from my story, and what I want for my readers. It’s helped me sift through the mass of story to find the questions that gnaw at me, and will hopefully gnaw at my readers, too. And so, proudly, I’ll stand before you today and say (with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek), “Hi, my name is Megan, and my goal is to win the Nobel Prize for Literature!”

Can you see my smile? I won’t be at all disappointed if I never achieve such a crazy goal, but the fact that such a goal exists is already helping me. And, with any luck, if I keep working hard towards my lofty goal, maybe one day my book will land short, on the desks of a student in my old grade nine English class, and maybe they will be inspired to a lofty vision of their own.

 

 

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When You Quit You Lose

Here’s one thing I’m learning at the moment: if I quit, I lose.

I read this blog this morning, about one writer’s eight year journey to the publication of her book. Ha. Eight years? Ha. I conceived mine eight years ago this year…and am about to start a complete and radical rewrite. It’s not a fun thing to stare down.

Sure, I’ve learned a lot in those eight years. I learned by doing, by failing, by making mistakes and picking myself up again. Sure, I had two babies in that time too (to add to the one I already had), and a few major life events. I can’t say I’ve worked flat out on writing or on research (although I have been pretty consistent). I’ve read a lot of books on the craft, I’ve read a lot of books by people who write similarly to me. I feel like I know more about writing a novel than I’ve ever known, which is a good thing because, well, I’m about to start from the beginning again.

Eight years is getting to the embarrassing stages – the kind of length of time you don’t like to tell to people, because they’ll start to think the project really sucks, or you’re terrible at what you do, or it won’t be worth reading, or you’re one of those people who plods away at a hobby, scared of ever reaching the end. None of those are true (well, so say I about it not sucking etc).

A few months ago I went to a writing workshop by a man called James Scott Bell, who wrote an excellent craft book called “Plot and Structure“. He encouraged us to pull out our pens and paper and write a love letter to our novels, “Dear (insert title here), I love you because…”. After a few minutes of this he then made us switch our brains around, and asked us what our novels would like to say to us. “Dear Megan, I wish you would…”. It was a positive and surprisingly challenging exercise. It’s also become the thing I’m holding onto at the moment in my writing journey. I learned then that I loved the courage and honesty of my characters, that I cared deeply about allowing their voices to be heard, for their stories to be understood. I learned that I’m too far in to quit.

Sometimes there’s no way out but through.

If I quit, I lose, and eight years is wasted.

I have to keep going. I will. I am. I can. It’s going to be worth it.

I’m just taking a deep breath first…

How about you? Have there been projects that you thought you’d never finish, or would never end? Did you finish them, or did you realise, after all, that you no longer cared? If you’ve done it, what does it feel like to finally see the end?

Proud to be Tasmanian?

Back in the day, back when I was about twelve years old, there was a show we all used to watch on TV, called “News Free Zone” (okay, it was a while ago. In the interests of full disclosure I have to admit that Mr. Google helped me out yet again with the name of the show, although he doesn’t have much at all to say about the rest of this post. The rest of this is all my thoughts and memories, so you’ll just have to put up with any inaccuracies).

Where was I? Oh yes.

Back in the day, back when I was about twelve years old, there was this sketch comedy show, and none of it is particularly relevant, except that it had this one regular segment called Australia Street, which chronicles the stories of the inhabitants of a share-house, each resident reflecting a state of Australia. Remember that show anybody? With the prissy Victoria Bitter, and Sunny Queensland with his floppy hat? Okay, it was the 80s. It was a long time ago. But it was kind of funny. And even if I didn’t fully get the jibes about the stereotypes of each state at the time, I did get the bit about Tassie. I was from Tassie. Heck, I was IN Tassie, and one thing I knew was that you don’t get many representations of Tasmania on TV or movies, or in stories.

So in this share-house on Australia Street, Tassie Franklin was a large hippy-ish woman living in a shed out in the back yard. She wandered in from time to time, eating an apple (Tasmania is famous for growing apples), and she’d say dim-witted, random things, and everyone would humour her for a few minutes and then tell her to nick off so they could get on with what they were meant to be doing. Something like that.

Good old Tassie. Left off maps and generally forgotten. Lives out in the back shed. In-bred. Two heads. Something about a convict past.

The other day I asked a friend who was born and raised on the mainland how she’d seen Tasmania while she was growing up, back in the 80s and 90s. I can’t remember the words she used, but the slightly patronising smile is one I remember from mainlanders years ago. The “oh, you’re from Tassie! How…sweet.” Like we were all a bit simple, a bit on the slow side. A bit not quite with it, with the notion that they should slow down their speech and thought patterns a little. My friend apologised, she’s a passionate Tassie advocate now, and I told her thank you, I was glad to hear that it wasn’t just my perception, or my own poor interpretation of memory. I remember visiting my cousins on the mainland and hearing that same patronising tone in their voices sometimes, or those of their friends. “Oh, you’re from Tassie. How…sweet!”

I remember the attitude back then, whether implied or spoken, that anyone with a brain gets out of Tassie as soon as they can. That the obvious step for anyone with some intelligence is to leave for the mainland. And many did. My friend questioned too, what does that do to a place when all the thinkers are encouraged to leave.

When we were in Canada we stopped at a bakery in a little town in Southern Alberta, run by an Australian woman, from Wollongong. We chatted a while, and she said “Tasmania eh? You don’t meet many Tasmanians!” We talked about how long she’d been in Canada (some twenty years now), and how she’d had a Tasmanian friend once, and how expensive it was to get to Tassie, which prohibited a lot of Tasmanians from travelling to the mainland, and limited others from travelling as often as they’d like. I remember the miracle that happened in the early 90s when budget airlines first began their Tasmanian operation, and suddenly poor students like me could travel, some for the first time in their lives.

I remember the feeling of “stuckness”, that of “missing the boat” because the man I fell in love with and married had no desire at all to leave Tasmania in spite of his wild intelligence. I remember feeling “dumbed down” by the sheer fact that travel was such a limited option. I remember resenting Tassie’s smallness, its apples, the vast expanses of treacherous water surrounding it, the attitude still of “Oh you’re from Tassie. How…sweet!”

Tasmania from space (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Tasmania from space (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I never chose to live here. I just…did. And after a while you learn to accept that people are coming now, moving TO Tassie and not just from it, intelligent people, thinkers, and not because they think it’s…sweet.

Here’s an amazing thing though. When I was in the US I met people who thought I was interesting, fascinating, exotic even, because I was from Tassie. I met people from cities wider and vaster than my entire state who thought I was the exotic one–not the simple one, not the stuck one, not the one who’s obviously inbred-two-headed-less-than-intelligent–the exotic one.

It made me think about Tassie differently. It made me see the stereotypes for what they are–stereotypes, from people who had little real experience of the a place rich and beautiful and steeped in history. It made me happy that, even if by default, I chose to live here. And, most importantly, it fuelled my desire to write Tasmanian stories.

I’m doing it now. I’m kicking off on a new novel, a Tasmanian novel, which is partly why I’m exploring these thoughts. I’d love to know how common these thoughts are. Are you Tasmanian? From the mainland? From elsewhere, and never heard of Tassie until you started reading my blog? Drop me a line. Help me with my research. Tell me YOUR Tassie story. Please?

A funny thing happened on the way to a writer’s conference…

I’m at this writer’s conference, right? It’s called the ACFW, which stands for American Christian Fiction Writers. This year it’s in Indianapolis, and there are something like five hundred Christian writers, editors and literary agents all swanning around in a hotel together, with writing workshops, appointments to meet with people in the industry, dinners, networking opportunities, the works. It’s a big deal. I’m pretty tired.

I don’t want to talk about that though. There are enough people out there who write all about it and put up hundreds of photos. You can google them. I want to write about something that happened there.

I wrote this novel, right? I really like it. Some people who have read it really like it as well, which is a good thing, because really liking a book is kind of important if you want people to actually buy it. Part of the reason I came to Indianapolis is to check out some literary agents and see if they think people may want to buy my book as well. And part of me thought “nah”, because really, really and honestly, it’s not the kind of book that people who read Christian fiction would really want to buy. Not only that, it isn’t really the kind of book that people who read secular fiction really want to buy either. So I thought, “nah”. Yeah. nah. I’ve been wondering a fair bit lately whether I should ditch this novel and write something else. Write this one off as a “practice novel”. Write something that sells.

Yeah. Nah.

I tried not to think too much about it really. In a place that was already a little overwhelming it seemed the easiest option.

So this morning that was what I was trying not to think as I sat in my workshop. Give it up. Write something that sells. Do something useful.

The workshop was by a dude called James Scott Bell, who writes thrillers, and who writes how-to-write-novel type books, and one of the very first things he had us do was to write a letter to our novels. Yeah. That’s right.

We’re writers, right? We get this kind of thing.

We had to write to our novels, and we had to write what we loved about them. It wasn’t hard. Words come easily at times like that. This is what I wrote:

Dear novel,

I love you because you’re honest. You’re a real look at broken hearts and you don’t flinch at what you portray. I love the way you connect with readers, the way you jump out of the page at people and take their hand and lead them in. I love your voice. I love the way you’re not afraid to tackle the deep things, the things people keep hidden, the deep places of hurt and loss and rejection and humanity. I love your honesty, and I love you for your courage.

Forever,

Your author,

Megan.

 

I felt it. I felt the passion for the story that I’d forgotten, and I felt all the reasons I’d wanted to write it in the first place. I was there. And then suddenly, while I was “there”, Mr. James Scott Bell asked us to write another letter: a letter from our novels to us, starting with the line “I really wish you…” Here’s what I wrote.

Dear Megan,

I really wish you would finish me. Properly. Don’t leave me on the shelf or in the bottom drawer. Don’t forget about me and move on to something else. I wish you would remember the passion you had for me in the early days, when we were together every morning. Please keep going. Keep pushing, keep it up until I have a voice and a life and a place to breathe outside of your own little home. Send me Megan, send me.

Love,

your novel.

 

I didn’t know the answer was in me. I didn’t know the passion had been buried. I didn’t know the passion in me could be buried so deep that I would be tempted to put the story away and never finish it. I didn’t know I could forget why I cared. I’m very grateful to Mr. James Scott Bell. I didn’t finish the rest of the workshop. I had to leave soon after that to go to an appointment. I would have paid the cost of the conference for that alone, really.

I better go. I think I need to write.

If you DID know

Yesterday I decided it was time to finally sit down and write a book proposal. For the non-writers out there, a proposal is basically a document detailing who you are, what your book is about, why someone should publish it and what you’re going to do to help it get to readers once it’s published. I don’t know if it’s industry-standard, but it is in the Christian book market.

I’ve been avoiding it.

I wrote a book because a book was on my heart to write. I’ve always wanted to write books, for as long as I can remember. I like my book. I’m proud of it. People who read it come away and say nice things about it too, and they say “wow”, and they say “that’s really good”, and I say “thank you”. But then some other people overhear these things and they say “you wrote a book? What’s it about?” and I say “ummm…stuff?” and they say “what sort of stuff?” and I say “ummm…people and stuff?”

People and stuff. That’s really good, Megan. You should be a writer, with a gift of words like that. Yeah.

There’s another answer that I sometimes give when people ask me what I write about, and that is “I don’t know”. And this isn’t strictly true either, because you don’t write 81,000 words about something you don’t know what it is or whether anyone would ever want to read it. Well, okay. Some people do. I don’t.

I had this friend once who never ever let me say “I don’t know”. She’d always counter it with “And if you DID know, what would the answer be?” and suddenly I’d find myself giving her an answer, whether it was a thought, a guess, a revelation. I did know, I just didn’t want to talk about it.

Funnily enough, I found the proposal to be the same. As soon as I sat down with all the relevant if-you-want-to-write-a-fiction-proposal-you-need-to-ask-yourself-the-following-questions questions, a good coffee and an iPad suddenly I found I did know the answers after all. I wrote three pages of answers, and a hundred more questions.

It made me think: how many more areas of life are there “I don’t knows” that I simply haven’t taken the time to figure out the answers to. Sometimes it just takes someone to ask the right question.

Hello my friend. How are you today? Are there niggling questions in your life that you stop up with “I don’t knows”? Have you ever asked yourself the question “what if you DID know?”

An essay of heartbreak

Happy Monday everybody. I’m hunkering down with edits for my novel, which need to be finished in the next six weeks before I jet-set back over to the good old US of A to go to the ACFW conference in Indianapolis and try and convince people it’s so awesome they should publish it. Or something like that. So I’m not blogging at the moment. I’ll stop in and give you something interesting to read instead, but it’s unlikely to be from me.

Today’s article is both profound and heartbreaking and incredibly, beautifully, poignantly written. It’s a personal essay written by Deborah Vlock, who I’ve been incredibly privileged to get to know through her blog, and who comments from time to time on mine. This essay is about her experiences with her son, now (I believe) fourteen.

Please read Benjy, Awake. Let it break your heart for a minute. Then, if you think of it, say a prayer today for Deb and for Benjy.

 

Would you do me the honour of…

I’m writing a proposal.

Noooooooo, don’t be silly! I’m already married…d’uh! I’m writing a book proposal. It’s okay. It’s not so hard. I’ve got a template, and that helps. Oh man, if everything in life had a template then wouldn’t it be awesome?

Oh okay…or not.

But it’s funny, because I’ve been living with this book for nearly seven years (yes, you heard me right), and I’m passionate about it, and yes, to be honest, I believe this is a book that God called me to write, but now some random Proposal Template is asking me HARD QUESTIONS. You know, like “what’s it about?”, or “why is it important?” and other things you can’t answer with “IT JUST IS!”

And of course the greatest irony is the whole book is about finding words to express deep feelings.

That’s not something I’m good at. At. All.

Anyone who’s ever asked me, when I’m having a really bad day, what’s happening for me, would have been met with an answer like “oh, you know. Stuff”. And a sage nod of the head, as if that explained everything. Which, of course, it does.

“Stuff” means everything. It means “I’m trapped so deep in my thoughts that I’m not sure how to find a way out”. It means “I’m really hurting please can you give me a hug or some chocolate…or preferably both”. It means “There are two completely opposing thoughts in my head right now that I can’t reconcile, and I’m not sure where God is”.

Or, of course, it also means “there’s too much washing on my kitchen table and too many dishes on my bench to even contemplate the idea of dinner and please can we eat fish and chips in front of the telly tonight”. But usually I’m okay with finding the words for that.

I can do it. I will. In fact, if I managed to write a book with 73,000 words that explain deep and complex feelings, then I’m sure I can write another 10,000 that explain why the 73,000 are so important.

Wish me luck, okay?

And next time you ask me what’s happening and I tell you “oh, you know, Stuff”, just check out the state of the kitchen. If it’s clean (ish) then I probably mean one of the other things : )