Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

NaNoWriMo Nashville

I used to be a Municipal Liaison (ML) in Melbourne for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and Script Frenzy (SF). During the first year of SF I met the ML for Nashville online, and we began a public competition marked with trash talking, ridiculous bets and counter bets.

Over the next few years the trash talking continued, the boasts became larger and the bets became more ridiculous. Both of our regions enthusiastically joined in, and with the core group on each side insults became an acceptably respectful greeting. The Nashville ML and I are no longer in our positions, but our regions have happily continued their friendly rivalry without too much encouragement.

Tonight I went to the weekly off season meeting for the Nashville group. I looked around the table of smiling faces and had the quiet thought I have probably insulted every single person at this table multiple times.

They welcomed me warmly to their group. I was filled in on some of the more spectacular boasts and failures of the year when I had not participated in the challenge. When I was caught up on the current status of the rivalry, we resumed our banter.

The easy inclusion into their group summed up everything that NaNoWriMo means to me. It is not just about writing a 50,000 word novel in a single month – anyone with enough patience and creativity can do that. In my eyes, this challenge is about so much more than that. It is about setting a goal for yourself, encouraging others to achieve their own goals, and being encouraged yourself when the goal seems unattainable. It is community, companionship and compassion in so many forms.

My enthusiasm for NaNoWriMo had waned over the last three years as various life events robbed this time of any joy it might have held. Being surrounded by a new yet old and familiar group reminded me of why I became involved initially, why each personal victory led into another personal victory. When November next rolls around I will be ready and excited by the prospect of joining in this global game once again. I am looking forward to making new friends in my new region, and continuing to insult new friends that I have properly met here in Nashville at last.

Before any of this can happen, however, I distinctly recall a bet from 2007 in which I won a taco. All I had to do was make it to Nashville to collect. None of us can remember the specific details of the bet, but I am eagerly looking forward to eating the most expensive free meal of my life.

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Judging at Ink Monkey

For the last year I have been working with a small publisher in Nashville, Ink Monkey Press, as an assistant editor. The primary editor works through the submissions pile, and divides it into three categories: no, maybe, and yes. My job is to read through the maybe pile and make the call.

I have a single guiding criteria for assessing the submissions: would I pay money to read this story or poem? I’m quite attached to my money, and I assume people who read the publications are as well, so this feels like a very fair way to make the call. If we would not personally pay to read a submission, how can we ask the readers to?

Working through the maybe pile has been a reminder of my early days at university. We would spend hours reading through the work of other people, carefully dissecting it to determine if it worked as a narrative or if it had a critical failure. It was not important if we liked it, only that we could not find fault with it. Frequently, in our early months of playing this game, the answer would be no, it did not work, it needed revision.

My rejection rate for the maybe pile is quite high. These submissions often have redeemable features, but there are still significant problems. For instance:

  • There is not a complete story arc. Either the introduction, middle or ending is rushed or absent. These stories can be better described as scenes.
  • Poems use forced structures that do not fit with what the author is trying to achieve. Some try so hard to be clever that they miss the simple truth that poetry is a method of communication.
  • A basic spelling and grammar check has obviously not been completed. It is so distracting to read a submission with a typo in every line.
  • There is little balance between narrative elements. This might be an excessive reliance on dialogue at the expense of action, or descriptive passages that are so focused on explanation that ten lines could be removed without changing the plot.

While here in Nashville we have discussed several additional problems that will result in an automatic rejection:

  • The author has not provided their real name with the submission. It does not matter how brilliant a piece is; if the author will not take their work seriously enough to claim it, why should we read it?
  • The author has not provided the required contact information with the submission. Again, if the author will not take their work seriously enough to provide us with a means of communication in the event of unforeseen problems, we won’t either.
  • Ignoring basic elements of craft such as sentence structure, paragraph structure, tense, perspective, and point of view. It is rare that we have time to read something three or four times in an attempt to work out what is happening.
  • Resubmitting a rejected piece for one of the other publications on the list. If we liked it but thought it would be more suitable for one of the other publications, we would have said so the first time.

Many of the problems that I have read could have been easily identified by the authors before submission. Reading aloud can expose problems with sentence structure. Asking a friend to read the piece can identify if it is interesting to others or not. Putting it aside in a drawer for a day or two can help expose typos. Checking through the submission guidelines and making sure everything is included will make a submission seem more professional. Even though we spend a lot of time rejecting work, it isn’t actually something we enjoy doing.

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The Stop Work Stop Block Surprise

I’m technically under a medical prohibition right now from doing most of the things I enjoy. While not excessive, this list does include the following activities:

  • Working
  • Using my computer
  • Reading books
  • Watching tv

The final three items were added when my doctor remembered what I do for a living. While I often appreciate how dilligent and thorough she is, there are times when these traits are downright annoying.

As you can probably guess, based on the fact you are currently reading this blog post, I am not being entirely faithful to her instructions. Like most artistic people, I am quite belligerent and excellent at doing my own thing. Viva la resistance and whatnot.

I have been struggling with several plot points with the trilogy I am working on. It is intricate, and I am putting a lot of effort into making sure my novel does not take too many random turns. Surprising and unexpected, definitely, but not Catherne-needs-to-stop-smoking-crack random. This is difficult for me lately, to the point where I often consider slapping the writers block label on it and writing job applications.

Against all expectations, within a few days of the stop work order, my plot problems began to clear. I started to have ideas that left me excited and filled with creative energy. Instead of the dorky ideas that were going to be included because I had nothing better, I am thinking of tiny plot hooks that will blossom into shock for my characters and gripping suspense for the reader. They are the ideas that remind me of why I love writing so much.

This mental clearing is especially exciting for me, because it is reproducable. My ideas have come to me while I have been out walking, as far from my pen and paper as I could conveniently be. It has reminded me of when I was younger and much more prolific; I would take the dog for a run every time I felt the first mental strain begin, and return home physically tired but mentally energised.

Happily, these long walks are the one thing my doctor is encouraging me to do on my work ban. I am allowed to spend as much time as I like meandering down garden paths, feeling the sun on my face, and letting my mind roam as free as it can. Now all I need to do is find several new routes to walk.

And possibly borrow a dog.

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Apparently I am a Brand

Over the weekend I went to a workshop about self-promotion and book marketing, run by Tania McCartney at the ACT Writers Centre. She is a vibrant personality, and the workshop was a good way to refocus and remind myself why I am a writer. Sitting in a room full of people who are doing what I want to be doing felt like the right place to be.

During part of the workshop we discussed how much of the personal can be safely shared, and how much should be kept private. It was an interesting change to have this conversation from a professional perspective, rather than the feminist one. I found myself contrasting the idea that “the personal is political” with the question “how much do I want to share?”

This is a question that I have battled with repeatedly throughout my life. It is a very rare occasion that I do something that would humiliate me if other people knew, and if that does happen it is usually because someone has caught me at a moment of weakness and explained how morally bankrupt I am. Shame is usually something I am very quick to get over. I am open to a fault, and unable to philosophically censor myself.

As a writer, my primary objective is communication. As a person, one of my guiding values is integrity. As a professional, I have always chosen transparency. Combined these elements steer me towards writing that tends to convey my personal truth. As an individual within a social group, who may one day be further investigated by public scrutiny, is this a sensible approach to maintain? Probably not.

I typically choose to share my bigger life experiences. It is easier for me to be honest than to make up a cover story. Because these life experiences are so thoroughly discussed as they occur, I have processed and left them behind. My reluctance to hide these significant details means that often new friends have no suspicion that they have happened. Occasionally I am in a position where I need to hide my laughter from people who think my life has been quiet and sheltered; perhaps it has been, but rarely more so than the person making the claim.

Tania made the point that, as writers, we are a brand with our writing as the product. This is something I have been discussing on and off with another writer for the last month. I know that she is entirely correct within the context of the current marketplace. My inner professional feels obliged to take note of this, but mostly I want to ignore it as blah blah blah. It is a cultural concept that I am unable to take very seriously; no matter what might be required by the world around me, I am firstly a person.

The balance between marketing and everything else will always be a grey area for me, and this is why I decided to attend the workshop. Technically this blog could count as marketing, but for me this is a component in my interaction with the world. I feel as if there should be a difference between writing for passion and writing to attract attention for my other writing. For other people this distinction will be clear, but in my world the advertising above the buy it now button is as far as I can consciously push. Perhaps one day publicists and all sorts of interesting professionals will bemoan my ability to open my mouth, but for now I will keep living my life, one inappropriate public statement at a time.

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Killing Abertha

As they draw their swords, yell their battle cries, and charge towards their enemies, I know one simple fact: my characters will probably all survive, because I am too chicken to kill them. Not even that irritating one who is just smarmy no matter how I try to improve him. And he could die. Really, it would probably be best if he did.

I have to be incredibly angry at someone to kill one of my characters, and even then it is likely that my offending character will only end up with a migraine so fierce they need to lie down for a day or two. Perhaps some bruising. Maybe a minor flesh wound. Oh, there could even be a melodramatic toe stubbing. The brutality of my creative wrath knows no boundaries, probably because it is too timid to go and find any.

With my current fantasy trilogy, I decided to work around my personal inhibitions by killing an important character before the first novel begins. Her body is returned to her family in the prologue, and the grief they feel during this incident is what triggers the events of the first novel. The circumstance of Abertha’s death is a mystery that haunts my protagonist for the duration of the first two books and, when the mystery is solved early in the final book, will be so shocking that big dramatic spoilers occur.

The plot was going well until I realised an uncomfortable detail: even if the scene does not occur within the novels, I must still know the cause and effect of this death sequence. I already know who the victim is, who the killer is, the location of the crime, and many key details that will influence solving this mystery. But the fact remains that the death itself is a mystery to me. Until I can understand every contributing factor to the sequence of events, I cannot do it justice.

A friend has suggested that I write the scene. His idea was that it could be published as a short story when the trilogy has been finished and published. I see the logic and sense of this. It is a good idea. Can I emotionally do it? At this point in my life, probably not. I have deliberately created a scenario that is as horrific as I could think of. I have been brainstorming other ways to collate the data so that I can write about it with confidence.

The best I have come up with so far is to write a detailed chronology of events. At 6pm Abertha does something. At 6:12 the killer does something. At 6:29 the killer finds Abertha. It is cold, soulless, and not remotely artistic, but does it need to be better? I am undecided.

Abertha’s death is important to my work, but Abertha’s life is where I will find the emotional energy. It will be the thousand little ways she is remembered by my characters that will give the work power. Creating a personality through regrets and wistful memories will be a new artistic challenge. Letting go of that life by describing her death will be the personal one.

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My Mission, Should I Choose to Accept It

A friend recently shared an article by Elle LaPraim about the importance of a mission statement for writers. I typically enjoy this sort of article when it is written from a personal perspective, as this one was. Corporate mission statements can often seem soulless, but mission statements that touch on the creator’s heart always give me a new lens to contemplate my own missions in life.

After sitting in a cafe contemplating what my own writing mission statement might be, I drafted the following:

My mission is to write novels that are carefully crafted with detailed worlds, intricate plots and individualised characters, which leave the reader guessing because I will not settle for the first, easiest, or most obvious solution to creative problems.

I will undoubtedly play with this over the next few weeks, possibly discarding it entirely, but it summed up what is important for me with my current artistic project. The books I love are ones where a second or third reading can provide new links and insights, small jokes that would otherwise be overlooked, and scenes that provide different emotional energy with each reading. While I am not always looking to be challenged while reading a book, I do prefer books that require me to pay attention.

When I was happy with this first draft of my writing mission statement, I began to contemplate other areas of my life where a clearer trajectory would help. What to do with myself and my life has been a significant theme in my mind for the last few years, and perhaps this would be a good opportunity to drill down into what my desires are reaching for. But where to start?

The number of aspects I could target began to flood my mind. Home, family, friendships and health easily sat beside career, but smaller areas joined them. Wardrobe, entertainment, decor, education, community, networks. The list threatened to become endless. Together they formed the larger question: who do I want to become?

I am a long way from figuring out some of my more challenging life dilemmas, but for now I am content to realise that the questions are there. There will be mistakes and incorrect answers as I journey through life, new directions I did not see initially, but ultimately if I am conscious about the direction I take I will probably find a satisfying set of answers. If nothing else, I have worked out the sort of creative writer I want to become, and that is a happy place to begin.

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Loincloths as Appropriate Business Attire

Last week, while struggling to comprehend the ATO’s definition of a professional artist, I came across the statement that a professional artist will have a business plan. That and membership of professional associations were the two things I genuinely understood from the confusing mass of legalese.

Since I am quietly terrified of anything taxation (and loudly terrified when tax time rolls around each year) I decided to get these aspects of my business sorted out. Finally joining the ACT Writers Centre instead of looking at their website and deciding to hand over my money at a later date was easy enough. The business plan presented a greater challenge.

Until recently, my business plan could be summed up with the following:

  • Write some books.
  • Try not to starve in the process.
  • Sell some books.
  • Become fabulously wealthy and hire some attractive men wearing loincloths to fan me and feed me while I recline on the beach of my own island. Loincloths optional.

I have a suspicion that, while hilariously entertaining for me, this first draft business plan might not work for the government. I probably need to include additional information. How many men? Am I hiring across sufficient nationalities to avoid racial discrimination? Do I also need to hire women to avoid sexual discrimination lawsuits? Which is the relevant award rate to pay them under, or will I need to negotiate an enterprise bargaining agreement with the relevant union? What are they feeding me? Has it been cleared by the appropriate food safety authorities? What is the carbon footprint for the fans? Where is the island? Is this a tax haven that will see me arrested upon my return home to visit family and friends?

The scantily clad men rapidly became difficult. Typical.

Reading through books on business plans and trying to write one has reminded me of a simple truth: life is unpredictable. I could spend weeks or months researching royalty rates, projecting profit and loss statements, writing executive summaries, and identifying current competitors, but for what? The publishing industry changes so quickly that my research will be outdated by the time I am ready to use it. Fashions change. Companies fold or are bought out by their competitors. New talents emerge, and old talents lose their magic.

There are undeniably business aspects to being a professional artist, but I do not think I will find these aspects in spending more time managing my business and less time working in it. No matter how complicated I might want to make a business plan, it must ultimately be reduced to the following:

  • Write some books.
  • Make those books as strong as they can possibly be.
  • Find the right markets for my books.
  • Sell some books.
  • Enjoy the work, and enjoy the journey.
  • Write some more books.

Fun as it would be to include it, I will leave out the point with men wearing loincloths. If it takes a business plan to surround myself with men wearing next to nothing on a beach, I am not doing the business wrong, I am doing life wrong.

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A Web of Red Tape

Clearly I decided that the best use of my time today would be to utterly bewilder myself. Because I’m all about efficiency and effectiveness, I figured that the best way to do this would be with governmental websites. And, truly, which better websites could there be than ones dealing with taxation law?

I started with the desire to register a domain name. Sounded simple enough. Because I want a .com.au domain name, I need to register an Australian Business Number (ABN). Ok, fine, I’ve been planning to do that for years anyway. This should be easy enough.

Wrong.

Fail.

Sigh.

I have a truly irritating habit where I actually read things before I sign them. Contracts, disclaimers, waivers, eligibility criteria, I read it all. Then I ask questions. Sometimes I learn that the person asking me to sign the form has not read it either, and this can lead to some startling revelations about the attention to detail of the people I conduct business with. Most often I learn that many people are so scared of the legal system that they just don’t want to know about it.

This habit carried over to the ABN registration information. I am a writer, so I appreciate that my business might not be as simple to define as a retail, wholesale, or manufacturing business. I have determined that I am a sole trader, but wanted to be certain that what I do properly counts as a business for taxation purposes. It was very simple to work out that if I register for an ABN without meeting the criteria there will be vague, scary consequences that involve me talking to people from the government. People from the government are probably lovely individuals, but I don’t want to find out in any sort of official capacity.

Twenty links and new tabs in my browser later, and I finally stumbled across this gem, courtesy of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). I highly recommend it if you are suffering from insomnia, or need to induce a headache for social reasons. After two hours reading it, I have definitely, without reservation, determined the following:

  • Lots of vague things the government doesn’t understand will prove my writing business exists. In light of this, I am fully justified in buying some new novels. It’s, er, market research;
  • Lots of vague things I do not understand will prove my writing business does not exist. In light of this, I am thinking of getting some fancier business cards printed; and
  • I would rather get a root canal than continue reading this website.

Based on the above insights, I have decided that I will just go ahead and do exactly what I wanted to do anyway. At least now I can be content in the knowledge that I did not ignore the legislation, I simply did not understand it. If the ATO does not agree with my interpretation of their website, I shall happily allow them to explain it to me in plain English. Hopefully it will never come to that.

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Assigning Value

How much is your time worth? How much is someone else’s time worth?

These questions can have an obvious answer in a capitalist culture. If your employer pays you $20 per hour, then your time is worth $45 per hour less than the person whose employer pays them $65 per hour. To extend this logic, if you have 20 hours of paid employment per week, you have 20 hours of valuable time. The reverse implies that you also have 148 hours of valueless time per week. Our culture actively reinforces this logic, designating hours not spent in the workforce as “spare time” or “free time”.

Putting a price on time and labour outside the workplace has been one of the big discussions of the feminist movement for decades. Mothers who tend their homes, care for their families, and birth the next generation do not have a salary with which they can objectively value their labours. Effort that is seen as worthless should be seen as priceless, because you could not possibly pay someone to care as much as the parent in a home will for free.

The trap with hours spent outside the traditional workplace (notice that English requires use of the word “spent”, which is monetary, and not “experienced” or “lived”) is that they are often invisible to others. We happily assign tasks to others without any appreciation for the way their hours are allocated, assuming that any time we cannot objectively quantify is spare for us to do with as we want. There can be a sense of entitlement to use the hours of others, because when something is free we do not expect its acquisition to cost anything.

How often is this free time genuinely free? Mothers have protested that parenting is a 24 hours, 7 days per week job. Even when asleep parents need to be listening for the cry of a baby or the dangerous silence of children entertaining themselves with something fragile and probably expensive. Many women have taken the time to determine jobs routinely performed by mothers, calculated the hours spent on each, and then costed this against the salary of professionals performing those tasks.

It becomes difficult to play this game with other areas. How do you cost the time of someone who does not work for money, or where any money earned is unpredictable at best? Can there ever be a capitalist calculation for time where the input and the output cannot possibly match? What is time worth when it is sold by the initial purchaser at a higher rate to a third party?

As a writer, these questions are interesting. My time is spent in exactly the same way if I am writing for fun or for profit. The experience I derive from both is evenly matched. Does money mean that my free writing is worth less than my paid? Does the quality of a publication improve as it earns more money? No. Quality is inherent, and can only be improved with additional effort. As I do not typically continue working on a piece once it is finished and my labours are producing money, there is an inherent value before the marketplace has its say. There is value that cannot be linked to an hourly economy.

There is also the business side of writing. If I spend three hours writing a piece that I sell for $300, my time appears to be worth $100 per hour. Unfortunately random people on the street rarely stop me to ask if they can give me money for my writing. I must spend hours searching for opportunities, ensuring my work complies with the requirements, purchasing the equipment I need to work, balancing my books, and a hundred other things that can be easy to overlook. If the process from completed work to income also takes three hours, is the time I spent writing still worth $100 per hour, and the other vital work is worth nothing, or has my hourly value dropped to $50 for everything? Should I also be deducting expenses before the calculation is made, or are they irrelevant for the value calculations?

Realistically, my time is worth opportunity, knowledge, satisfaction, and all the other things I can trade it for to enrich my life. I wonder how many people can say the same, and how many will only see the dollars per hour.

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The Indie Alternative

I would like to begin this post by blaming two individuals for totally and utterly trashing my work week. No, my work month. Possibly the rest of my year. Shame on you both. Bad, bad, bad.

The first guilty culprit is Matthew Farmer. Matt has just published the first part of his novel The Girl From Out Of Town. I have been helping (or fighting with) him about various points of editing. I have sat there with my metaphorical pompoms saying such inspirational things as “make it better” and flooding him with ideas that have made him all sorts of excited. And grumpy. But mostly excited. I think. There has been structural editing, line editing, and a lot of days spent contemplating how to make something exciting and cool.

The second guilty culprit is Scarlett Rugers. Scarlett designs book covers. They are very pretty, and I quite like her work. She has also given Matt some feedback on his novel, since she is also a talented writer and editor, and worked with him on the cover and banner advertising. What she has created is slick, glossy, and looks far more expensive than what she currently charges. Obviously the 0 key on her keyboard is in desperate need of repair.

Between the two of them, I have been exposed to a side of publishing that my time at university had convinced me not to look into. Previously I saw a world in which my best hope was spending years waiting for a publishing house to maybe look at me if I am a very good girl who says please and thank you and pretty please and thank you so much and pretty please with a cherry on top and thank you so much here in appreciation please have my first born child, and the second, in fact my womb is yours just please like me. Now I see a very different world of self publishing, where I am in full control, commanding far larger royalties for a reduced reader price, and only as shackled to the industry as I want to be.

Evil, aren’t they? Dratted friends.

A few weeks ago I had been wondering how to write a novel that one editor – who I have never met before – would like enough to do something about. Now I am wondering how to publish that same novel myself, to make it available to real readers. Instead of pleasing one gate keeper, I can ask the market directly what it thinks. My work can live or die on its own merits, and not on proposed demographics, budgets, staff availability, corporate timelines, or the hundreds of other things that can kill a writer’s career before it begins.

I like this brave new world. A lot.

Scarlet has me thinking about the design aspects of publishing that were truly outside my experience. Instead of seeing something hard and unsurmountable, I now realise that I can ask someone who I trust to help me, knowing that she will do an incredible job for an affordable price. A significant part of self publishing has moved instantly from the too hard basket to the too easy basket.

Matt has me thinking about the business aspects of publishing, which were also outside my experience. I am now seeing simple and easy ways to break into distribution channels, and as I watch his progress I am quickly realising that times have changed. His success rate within a week is much higher than what I had considered possible inside a year. More importantly, his work still has an organic quality to it that is impossible through traditional publication.

Instead of being distracted by the business challenges ahead of me, I can now return to artistic challenges. I can go back to writing what I want to write, and not what might be commercial. I can make something that is authentic and genuine instead of consumerist crap. The only people who have to be pleased are me and the people who will enjoy my writing at its best.

Simple.

Pity about anything else I might have wanted to do this year.

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