Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

End of NaNoWriMo

Today is the end of NaNoWriMo, and I have not had the outcome that I had anticipated when I began the challenge. I began with high hopes that I would complete a novel by the end of the month, because it is something that I have repeatedly succeeded at before. Instead I ended up deleting the novel at 19,000 words and leaving it at that.

I feel more successful than I ever have during NaNoWriMo.

Before I began the Bachelor of Arts (Professional Writing) after high school, I was ruthless with what I wrote. Wrong sentence? Delete. Flat character? Delete. Boring idea? Delete. Stupid plot twist? You guessed it: delete. If I did not enjoy what I was working on, the outcome was swift and remorseless. And I loved it.

At university I was exposed to many new ideas about writing that I had never encountered before. There was the idea that writing is not something for pleasure, but instead it is hard work that is mentally taxing. My prose should never be deleted, but instead carefully put aside in a file in case I changed my mind later. People who don’t write every day to a set schedule are pretenders who will never make it in the industry. Writing poorly is better than not writing at all, because you can just fix it later.

After a few years of this, the thrill of writing was gone. I no longer trusted my own judgement. As my marks improved at university, the friends and family around me told me that the quality of my work was declining at an equally steady rate. I was caught between an expert opinion that carried the authority of industry experience, and the opinion of amateurs that I secretly suspected was correct.

If you’ve ever wanted to understand writers block, repeat the above actions and you’ll be there in no time. When anything that you write will be wrong, it is impossible to find the confidence to push through and continue.

This month, while writing another novel that was going in a direction that didn’t make me happy, I finally paused and considered the ideas that I had been taught. Writing has to be hard? Rubbish. Every word is precious and needs to be preserved at all costs? Rubbish. Doing exactly what I want to do is bravery bordering on insanity? Rubbish. These concepts are all the petty miseries of other people, and there is no need to buy into them.

When I decided to break out of NaNoWriMo this month and trash my work, I felt liberated. I was no longer bound by the rules of other people to work in a certain way at a certain time. All the pressure lifted, and I switched from seeing my novel as stupid to seeing it as a story that had taken an early wrong turn and needed to be gently steered back on course. This was reclaiming my writing, my ideas, and even my beliefs. I can’t imagine a bigger success at this point in time.

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NaNoWriMo and POTS

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I have decided to participate again this year. It is a 30 day challenge, and the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month. People participate from around the world, and this year has an estimated 300,000 people joining in.

On Friday I mentioned that I have sunk my blood pressure again by cutting out my Gatorade intake. My POTS symptoms are truly back with force, and my blood pressure is sitting around 90/65.

One of the worst symptoms for me with POTS is the cognitive impairment. I simply don’t get enough blood flow to my brain to think clearly or quickly. I constantly feel confused with varying degrees of distress. It is difficult for me to solve puzzles, to recall small details, and to remember how things work.

And what is NaNoWriMo? Essentially, it is 50,000 words of creative, mentally taxing problem solving.

This is the first year that I am participating since I became sick again with POTS. I would not have the courage to attempt NaNoWriMo if I had not been diagnosed. Writing is something that went from pleasurable and easy to upsetting and hard as my symptoms returned, because I did not understand what was happening to me. Something that had always been simple became difficult, and I could not work out why my novels didn’t flow. I became convinced that my ideas were terrible, that my writing was not as good as I had thought it was, and my confidence fled.

Now that I am armed with knowledge about what is going on, I feel confident enough to attempt NaNoWriMo again. This time around, I am approaching it in a very different fashion. NaNoWriMo has some unofficial rules, and I am breaking the following:

  • Do not read over what has been written. This is typically banned because it encourages writers to become critical about their work, and can interrupt the flow of storytelling. I am reading it every time I become stuck, to help orient myself in the story again.
  • Do not edit until the first draft is finished. This is typically banned for the same reason as above. I am editing every time I read through and notice that I have an error in the earlier story, or a place where I was lazy with my character development. This is adding a lot of words that I did not expect to gain, so I’m pleased with that.
  • Write 1667 words every day. This is the minimum word count required to hit 50,000 words. I have recalculated my goal to be 4000 words every five days, with the sixth day set aside for editing and outlining. It is better to fall short of a big target than a small one, and I have built in time that can be used for catching up.
  • Solve problems by writing through them. This is recommended because it forces the writer to keep writing, and often surprising solutions can be found under pressure. I am solving problems instead by getting up and doing something physical away from my novel. The movement helps my body to combat any blood pooling that is going on.
  • Write as quickly as possible. This is recommended because it adds excitement to the writing process. I am ignoring it because it just confuses me in my current state, and instead writing slowly to make sure I understand what I’m doing.

I am only a few days into the challenge, but I can already see how different this novel is to the others that I have produced during NaNoWriMo. It is better written, and I am not weighed down with the knowledge of how many mistakes I need to correct. It takes me all day to write what used to take an hour, which is annoying me, but I am forcing myself to stay calm and keep writing.

Achieving my high word count goal is just not working so far. At first I was disappointed with myself for not writing more, but then I remembered my first NaNoWriMo novel. I am writing far more per day than I did with that one. These words are better quality than my first novel could dream of being. When I wrote it I was so proud of myself because I was doing something I never thought I could do.

I have to be objective, and acknowledge that this month I am also doing something I feared I would not be able to do. I am sitting down, writing a new novel, and not letting my condition stop me. There are a lot of healthy people out there who have already failed because they gave up on this challenge. If you want to monitor my progress, check out the new widget on the side of this blog. Despite everything I am still in the game, and I am still holding my own.

There is a lot in this for me to be proud of.

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Changes to This Blog

I have decided to split this blog into two. Starting next month, I will publish here twice a week, and continue to write about the strange and wonderful things that are happening in my life. Or, nothing particularly interesting will be happening, so I’ll just make up stuff to talk about. I’m sure my regular readers know how to spot the difference by now.

The other half will be my new site over at penmonkey.org. This will focus on writing and the business of writing. If you only follow this blog because you enjoy my occasional posts about these topics, I would suggest you quietly jump ship and follow me there. If you can’t stand reading about me getting way too excited over writing related things that bore you to tears, then congratulations, your misery and torment here are over.

Since I am generally hopeless about remembering to tell people what I am up to, my schedule from next month is as follows:

Monday: here.

Tuesday: Book in the Bag. This is a book review site, and I am writing with a team of talented ladies. We will be publishing almost every day, but Tuesday is my day. If you’re into book reviews and author interviews, please check us out (we launch October 1).

Wednesday: Penmonkey.

Thursday: Catherine Asks 11 Questions. This is an interview site, where I ask the same 11 questions of a variety of artists. If you happen to be an artist who would like to be interviewed, I’m really happy to hear from you. Authors, illustrators, musicians, actors, dancers, and probably a dozen other careers that are exciting and cool are welcome.

Friday: here.

As always, my current and upcoming publications, and ways to find them, are on my website. I hope you’ll take a moment to check out everything else that I am working on.

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Thanks, DHL

While touring Germany, one of my stories was published in an anthology by Ink Monkey Press called You Don’t Say. After carefully evaluating my options, I decided to get a few copies sent to my final known address in Germany. The shipping speed would have given me nearly a week with the books before I continued with my journey. I figured even if they were a day or two late, it wouldn’t be a problem.

Delivery day rolled around. The books did not. I went online to look at the parcel tracking, and my books appeared to be sitting in the USA. My sense of geography can sometimes be a bit delusional, but I am fairly sure that there are a few countries and an ocean between the USA and Germany. In other words, it isn’t the next town over.

Not terribly pleased about this, I contacted the manufacturer, only to be assured that my delivery had probably been delayed by customs or the local post office. I was told that parcels cannot be tracked through the global tracking system once they leave the USA. Clearly I have been overseas too long, because I must have misremembered ‘global’ as meaning ‘everywhere on earth’.

I started to become a bit obsessive about the DHL website. Three days after the books were supposed to arrive, they finally left the USA and were flown into Germany. Then they sat there, relaxing. I was not quite as chilled, especially once I found out how much it would cost me to get the books shipped to Australia after I left.

My books finally arrived in Jena on Saturday. I left Jena on Friday.

I’m irritated by this at so many levels. There is the inconvenience of being given a delivery date and then not having it met. There is the inconvenience of needing to organise additional shipping, not to mention the additional cost. But, most importantly, there is the inconvenience to my career.

I could have sold every single one of those books while I was in Germany if they had been with me. There were more requests from people to purchase a signed copy than I had ordered, so I would have run out of stock. I can assure you, having no stock because you sold it all is a much better problem to have than not having stock because it didn’t arrive and losing every single one of those sales as a result.

Even if these books now arrive in Australia without any further shipping problems, the potential profit that I could have made from them has vanished. If I keep or give away a single copy, I will make a loss. And is this the worst part for me? Not by a long shot.

I write because I love to do it, and I love it because I can communicate something to other people. One of the key components to communication is having someone to communicate with. A writer needs a readership, or she isn’t taking the process very seriously. This was a chance to build a readership, to show people the quality of my work, to keep their attention while I had it. And, thanks to the expedited shipping process that I paid a decent amount of money for, this particular opportunity is now gone.

Yes, I can make new opportunities, but they might not be with this group of people. I could complain bitterly about how angry I am, how the company should compensate me, and blah blah blah. But honestly? It just makes me sad. There are some amazing people out there that I don’t get to share this book with now, and that is the part that matters most.

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Taking It Slow And Easy

I am currently in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a city that by its nature doesn’t have an overabundance of modern conveniences such as air conditioning and elevators. This wasn’t an issue on my last visit here, but this time Germany is experiencing a heat wave, and I haven’t properly acclimatised to the summer weather yet.

My POTS symptoms had been under control before I came to Germany, but after a month of following the diet that I am able to get, rather than the one I would typically eat, I am feeling a lot of symptoms again. I can’t say that I missed many of them: the dizziness, the lethargy, that vague sick feeling.

It would be easy to become filled with self pity about this and launch into a stream of poor-me, but I have no intention of going there. Instead I am choosing to see this as a confirmation of all the things that I have been doing right over the past year. Salty food truly is the key for me. The exercise I have done to build up my muscular strength has helped enormously, but alone it is not yet sufficient. Still, this hard work has taken me from being catatonic on the couch to being slow but still out there in the world.

The reappearance of my most frustrating symptoms could be a great excuse to minimise what I do in Rothenburg, but I am not letting that happen either. True, I can’t do as many things as I would like to, but I can do them at a much more relaxing pace. Yesterday I spent a few hours sitting in the castle gardens. I can’t recall the last time before coming to Germany that I sat in a garden by myself for a few hours and just let the world pass me by. It was great, and something I might not have taken the time for if I had felt better.

I have also spent a lot of time creatively working here. The worst of the midday heat just crashes me, but rather than fighting it I am letting my body rest. When the night air cools, I am refreshed and alert. After so many hours during the day letting creative inspiration flow in, it is easy to let it all flow back out again and onto the page. New projects are taking off, old ones are gathering pace, and despite how unwell I currently feel, I am progressing at a pace that I would be pleased with if I felt well.

Regardless of the benefit I am still finding in my day, I hope that this heat wave is over before I have to haul my backpack back to the station. I will be very, very sad if it isn’t.

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My Little Online World

Less than two months ago I was convinced by several friends that I needed to face the fear, be brave, all that great stuff, and finally create my online marketing presence. It was a get off the couch and out of the house phase. People who know me would probably be astonished to hear that this is something I find very difficult, but the people who know me very well would immediately appreciate the main problems with this plan:

  1. It requires talking to new people. New people are strangers. Talk to strangers? By myself? Are you mad? I’m still not over the first grade classes about stranger danger.
  2. It requires convincing myself that I am not the most boring person other people have ever met.
  3. It requires exposing myself to rejection from others. Why would I bother doing this, when I am so utterly fabulous at rejecting myself?

I know exactly where all of my fears have come from, but it doesn’t particularly help me to work past them. Fears are logical when they’re in your own head. They whisper things to you that you can’t ignore. Unfortunately marketing is not the same area as a Stone Age bear that wants to eat me (although, to be fair, there are some marketing areas where I’d rather take on the bear – I understand what the bear wants).

My foray into this brave new world of putting myself out there started simply enough. I updated my LinkedIn page, created a Facebook page and Twitter feed, and wrote my website. Business cards were made, along with other random marketing things that looked fun and were free from VistaPrint. Each additional point came with the high of adrenaline born from terror, but I did it. Go team me.

Then I realised I had no content to market. This was somewhat depressing. After years of being told by a lot of people, even begged by some, to resume publishing my work I had no publishing credits that I could still locate. My past publications were on websites that no longer exist or print media that I no longer have a copy of. The new pieces that had been accepted for publication were not yet released.

I spent a few days feeling miserable about it all, and then came to Germany for my two month trip. While here one of those publications was released. Suddenly I was able to create my Amazon author page. There was a front cover to place on the main page of my website. A few more pieces were accepted for publication.

This is real progress, the sort that I can’t talk myself into ignoring. I’m finally doing the things that I have always wanted to do. It feels exciting, liberating, and comforting. Now I just need to stay off the couch and out of the house long enough for the fear to fade into acceptance.

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The Travelling Office

I’m currently in Germany, away from home for roughly 66 days. For a lot of people I’ve spoken with, this has sounded like an incredibly long time. Perhaps it is; ask me at day 60. The main point of concern has not been around the expense, the house and garden, or even who is collecting my mail. Instead the primary point of discussion has been work. How can I possibly be away for so long and still do any sort of work?

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to 2012!

My entire database of business files is stored on a 16gb USB stick. There is a copy of the software I use on most of my computers, and the USB stick was backed up at home before I left. If I wanted to I could also back this up online but, because I am travelling, I do not want to be reliant on the internet to work. Instead I am backing up the USB stick to my laptop. Even if one copy of my data is corrupted, there is another copy that is easily accessible. If things truly became desperate I could phone our housesitter and ask him to email the files that I need.

The business contacts that I need to keep in touch with are all via electronic communication. My Skype account is accessible anywhere I have an internet connection. I am able to write emails offline, and then send them all when I connect to my web based email server. If I am very careful about my usage, I can even run all of this through the internet connection on my phone. I have a local SIM card, so I will not be hit with data roaming costs. As a backup I have enabled roaming on my Australian SIM, so I am able to check my voicemail for a small fee if I want to. Since I never want to, I don’t expect that to be terribly expensive for this trip.

I have excellent battery life on my laptop. Most of my journeys between cities take far less time than my battery can sustain. Even if they were longer, a lot of the trains here have power points that I can plug into. If the situation became desperate for some unforeseen reason, I still have an old fashioned notepad and a few pens. It would be annoying to have to hand type hours of work, but certainly not impossible to do.

This time, I have even remembered to take the correct power adapter.

Even my social networking presence was easy to manage ahead of time. On my Facebook page I enjoy posting inspirational or amusing quotes. Facebook has a feature where you can forward date a post, so I have scheduled updates for the days where I do not typically publish blog posts. These are then automatically posted to my new Twitter account via Facebook. If you have come to this blog from one of those sites, I have lined up some fairly funny ones for you while I am away, and I hope you enjoy them. Realistically though, I could fall off the planet and no one would notice until I was due home.

Am I worried about my ability to work overseas? Not particularly. It’s going rather well so far. When I last checked I had written about 10,000 words during this trip. Germany is full of inspirational places that are perfect for sitting down and writing a short story or a scene from my novel. It’s impossible not to feel creative here.

Am I worried that people at home might not realise I ever went away? Just a little…

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But if I Don’t Chase That Duck It Will Have to Submit a Tax Return

Sometimes I have dreams that are a little too vivid. They usually happen when I get too warm in my sleep. If I am lucky I wake up and can cool myself before they go too far into crazy land.

Last night I woke myself up when I kicked my partner. I remember being confused about what had just happened to my leg. There are hazy recollections about babbling something to him about my dreams, and perfectly clear recollections of him being far more awake than I was. I can’t imagine why.

He managed to get me to go back to sleep – brave man – and the dreams slid back into crazy land.

I used to dread these nights of excessive mental imagery. So many bizarre ideas are thrown to my consciousness, and when I wake properly in the morning I often feel as if I have barely slept. There have been many mornings of resisting what I dreamed about, feeling tense and stressed as a result of my nocturnal thoughts.

This morning was different. When I got over the shock of my final set of dreams, I began to wonder instead if this was my unconscious mind trying to help me with my writing. As the fragments of the dream shifted in my mind I realised that, yes, there was a good story here to be told.

It has not been a recent event over the last few years that I wake up, write out a story, and immediately like it. Normally I am so critical of my work that it takes me several days to admit that something was not pure trash. I am also bemused to note that the story length was naturally what I needed to produce for a particular publication that I want to submit to.

There have been so many of these strange dream sequences over recent months that I wonder if this has been my way of telling myself to do different work. How many of these chaotic dreams were the start of an attempt to broaden my writing?

Next time I have one of these nights I intent to repeat the sorting process, and see if another story easily emerges. If it was that easy once, it should be again. I’ll just have to make sure I don’t deliberately overheat myself. Domestic violence charges are so clichéd B grade celebrity, and I don’t want to have to sleep on the couch.

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Matthew Farmer: The Girl From Out Of Town

This week my friend, Matthew Farmer, published his first novel, The Girl From Out Of Town. The first store it was launched through was Smashwords, and it is in the process of being distributed through other retailers. It has certainly been an exciting time for Matt, and it has also been exciting to watch the process.

Matt has a unique ability to bring the Smashwords website down. He announces a release date, and then Smashwords just dies.  His teaser for the book – launched February 14 – coincided with such a catastrophic website meltdown that it was delayed for two days. It was unfortunate, but did provide him with some interesting dialogue about the delayed work that probably gained more interest than it lost.

His second release date, this time for the full novel, was scheduled for Sunday. This time he was slightly more careful in his release date advertising but, when everything was finalised and ready to go days before the planned date, he got cocky. He said something to friends and family, and somehow the internet gremlins heard about this. They made their way to the Smashwords website, and lay in wait.

Sunday came, and the gremlins struck. Every few hours he tried to upload the novel, and every time he would get through the process only to watch his file die halfway through the upload. His browser mocked him with unfairly taunting error messages. I mocked him with messages that it must be him and his ability to kill Smashwords.

Monday came, and I decided to be helpful. It was still giving him problems but, unlike the previous website meltdown, there was nothing on the Smashwords site to say they were aware of issues. I offered to upload the novel for him. After a few more hours of trying, he agreed to give it a go.

Unlike Matt, Smashwords apparently likes me.

It was fascinating to work through the process where I can be relaxed about the outcome. There were more decisions to be made than I had anticipated, and completing the form has given me a lot to think about with my own works in progress. There were marketing decisions, such as the percentage of the novel that can be freely read before purchase is required. There are financial decisions, such as the royalty breakdown for various sales channels. There were design considerations to make a single file compatible for conversion to multiple formats.

My internet connection had no difficulty with the upload process, so it really must be Matt. He was a lot happier to be teased about this when his novel went live. It was rewarding to watch his expression on Skype as I worked through each section of the upload, and hilarious to take sneaky print screen photos of his expression when we reached critical stages of the process. Then there is the personal satisfaction of seeing a novel that I helped to edit be completed. I’m looking forward to reading the final version.

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Writing Through POTS

Over the last few years I have struggled with my writing. The ideas simply do not come, or they come and are totally unusable as good creative material. When I first relapsed with POTS I had no idea why my fount of words had mysteriously dried up. I went from being so prolific that I had countless notebooks filled with ideas that I planned to get back to when I had time, to staring at blank pages and wondering how I ever used to write at all.

Since my diagnosis, I have learned that my ability to write is directly related to how well I am feeling. If there is inadequate blood flow into my brain, there is inadequate creative flow out of it. I cannot force myself to create under such circumstances. The best I can hope for is to quickly resolve the underlying problem and move on.

Now that I am aware of my very real obstacles, I have been able to deal with this sudden drop in creativity. In my alternative life, saying that I am working on a novel by going to the gym and doing ten sets on the leg press makes complete logical sense. The stronger my muscles are, the higher my blood pressure becomes, the more I can create.

When we moved house a few weeks ago I put in an incredible amount of physical effort. For several days there were few muscles that did not ache from use. I ate like a mad woman, burned off an incredible amount of energy, and then began to live my newly modified life.

As we settled into the house, my creativity and work output surged. Suddenly tasks that had been put off for months were completed. Stories were not only thought of, but they were written, edited, submitted for publication, and even accepted. I began to dream of my work again, waking up every morning buzzing with ideas that excite me. I attributed this to a reduction in stress and was thrilled with the results.

Today I went to the gym in Melbourne with my mother, and I decided to push myself. Sometimes there are things that you only want to do away from your personal trainer. With every exercise I tried, I was able to lift heavier and longer than I have been able to in years. Over the last two weeks I have put on a significant amount of muscle, and I proved that to myself today as I succeeded at more than I had dared to dream of.

I cannot determine if it is a reduction in stress or an increase in strength that has helped the quality of my work so dramatically. In all probability it is a combination. Now that I am working at this higher level, I am remembering all the old habits from before I got sick. Outlining plots while walking the dog. Writing scenes in my head while lifting weights. Wearing arm and leg weights while I worked in my office. Scheduling writing sessions to immediately follow exercise sessions. They all make sense to me now, and I am freshly amazed at how my instincts match the science so closely.

Whatever the primary reason for this improvement, increased strength and reduced stress are never a bad recipe for life. They are satisfying in their own right. And now, for the sake of my career, I have even fewer excuses not to keep them front and centre in my mind.

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