Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mapping my mind, one doodle at a time

You know you're losing the plot when you're reading your own books and learning from them. But that's where I found myself this morning. When I made my decision to 'work smarter, not harder' this year, my next thought was... all well and good, but how?

And then I remembered Kate Sykes. Kate is the co-author of Career Mums, my little blue guide for working mums. We had a great time writing our book, and some very interesting conversations. I particularly remember the discussion we had about 'mind mapping'. "It's really great, Al, you should give it a go," she urged.


The premise is that you get out the butcher's paper, several different coloured textas and some quiet time. You sit down, put a big circle with 'ME' in the centre, and then use the questions that Kate provides to really hone in on your thoughts and aspirations.

This is very not me.

Kate was adamant that it go into the book, however, because she's seen it work. Hundreds of times. So in it went.

Call me a late-adopter, but I've finally seen the light. With my new goal in mind, and various sub-goals in the 'might like to achieve this year' category, I decided to pull out my textas and actually give it a go.

Kate has provided us with a whole range of questions to answer:

•How would you describe yourself (tired)
•What are you good at (procrastinating with textas)
•What skills have you accumulated to date (Tweeting)

And so on and so forth. While my answers here are flippant, I've done my best to be serious on my actual map. I guess what it's given me is an overview of where I'm at and where I'd like to be. I've included a little section on projects I'd like to complete (stay tuned), people I admire and why, where I want to be in January 2014. (Note I use the word 'want' there, not 'like' - part of my new ethos to be more upfront about what I can do.) It also contains some of my best doodling work. Possibly ever.

It's not a roadmap by any means. But it's a starting point.

Because writing things down makes them real. Everybody knows that.

If you'd like to map your own mind, you can buy Career Mums here to help.

Have you ever tried mind mapping or any other tools to help you work out what you're doing? Did it work?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Starting Out #2: What kind of writer will you be?

It probably won't come as a surprise to you, but I know a lot of writers. Copywriters. Writers of fiction. Writers of non-fiction. Writers of theses. Writers of reports. Corporate writers. Bloggers. Feature writers. Columnists. Writers of jokes. Writers of news. Writers of web content. Writers of comics.

Some writers dip in and out of several of these of categories. Some specialise in just one. Many of them started out in journalism with me. A few of them jumped straight into novels and have never deviated.

My point is that writing is one of those jobs that can take you in and out of several industries, job descriptions and time zones. Working out what style your writer hat (or wardrobe of hats) will take is half the battle.

Just ask Anna Spargo-Ryan, author of this week's Starting Out post. Anna is another of my favourite Twitter finds. One minute I'd never heard of her, the next she was a constant and welcome part of my Tweet life. She's one of those social media cool kids, but never bores a person with talk of SEO and engagement. She writes a clever, insightful blog about whatever is top of her mind at the time, and she's seriously good at 140 character soundbites. She's also branching out into other kinds of writing. Lots of different types.

But I'll let her tell the story...

"Writing. It's a word, but it's also a lifestyle choice."

When I decided, in primary school, that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I was pretty sure that was all there was to it.

"I'm going to be a writer when I grow up," I said, and adults rubbed my hair and said I would probably be an administrative assistant instead.

"Bugger you,' I said, because I was a very mature six-year-old.

People ask about your career aspirations a lot, when you're a kid. "A writer," I kept telling them. Years passed. "A WRITER. Have you thought about having your ears candled?"

Then one day, my English teacher sat me down and said, "What kind of writer?" and I stopped dead in my tracks. What did she mean, what kind of writer? One who writes books, obviously! How did she even get her degree in teaching English? I laughed in her face.

I wrote words after that, but none of them turned into a book. The longer I sat at my computer without winning awards for trying, the more I thought about my English teacher's words. I loved writing, but I was shithouse at writing books. Were there really other ways I could express myself?

More importantly, would I earn enough money to feed my family if all I had to sell was half a novel? And not even the good half?

I tried everything. Even 25 words or less competitions became a serious creative outlet.

I started and ended no less than fourteen blogs between 1998 and 2012. They all said the same thing: "wahh, something something miserable." I liked the freedom to write, and I was both buoyed and crippled by an insatiable need for feedback. My children hid from me as I roared, "MORE COMMENTS!" and beat my chest.

I wrote corporate copy and technical documentation and large tenders. It took a lot of years to find my niche in this area. Surprisingly, there is a very small market for government proposals that include sentences like, "The Radio Frequency engineers have faces like moon cakes." I'm pleased now to know I'm more suited to writing about biscuits and yum cha.

Feature writing
Feature writing is when you smash your head against a wall until an idea comes out and then send it to someone who tells you it's the worst idea ever.

Creative writing
It's been hard for me to realise that creative writing can never be my day job, because I chose to have kids and dogs and cats and expensive chocolate habits. But that doesn't mean the 'day job' has to be working in a knuckle factory. Diversifying my writing has helped me to justify writing a novel instead of being strung out about what I want to be when I grow up. This year I've written 22,000 words about an alcoholic mother's relationship with her adult daughter and I have enjoyed more than 10 per cent of the time I've spent doing it.

The good news is, if you write enough things, whatever they are, your brain will begin to enjoy the habit of putting words in order. Spreading your writing around doesn't diminish the writing, in the same way that it does when you buy eight cats and only have time to love three of them. Writing begets writing. The more you write, the more you feel like you can. The more you expand your writing remit, the richer your writing becomes.

Writing. It's a word. But it's also a lifestyle choice.

Visit Anna Spargo-Ryan here, where she blogs sometimes and not always miserably. And say hello on Twitter. She's really very good at Twitter.

How many different types of writing have you tried? Which do you like best?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Fibro Q&A: Kate Forsyth talks fantasy

It's been a while since I've had anyone over to the Fibro for a cuppa and a chat, and who better to begin the new year than Kate Forsyth, who just came in at number 22 on Booktopia's list of Australia's Top 50 Favourite Bloggers?

I remember seeing Kate speak several years ago at a Romance Writers' Conference, and being in awe of her ability to talk sensibly about world-building and characterisation. Her fantasy and historical novels, for children and adults, are sweeping stories of epic proportions, in which readers truly enter a different world. And she makes it look easy.

I met Kate again at an Australian Writers' Centre lunch (she's a presenter, I'm an online tutor) last year and nearly fell off my chair when she casually mentioned that she's written more than 20 books. Egad!

So I thought I'd best get her in here to find out exactly how she does it.

AT: You've written more than 20 books across different genres – adult, children's, poetry – but much of your work has been in the area of fantasy – what is it that drew you to fantasy in the first place?
Kate Forsyth: "I have always loved reading books that are filled with history, suspense, romance and magic - and so that is what I like to write. About half of my books are old-fashioned heroic fantasy, and the other half are historical novels with a twist of magic in them. All of my books draw upon the deep well of myth and fairy tale and folklore. Why am I drawn to such stories? I don't know. It's part of the mystery of creation."

When you first began writing fantasy, it wasn't overly fashionable, but it seems to me that that has changed – why do you think that has happened?
KF: "I don't actually agree with you there. When my first fantasy novel, Dragonclaw, was published in June 1997, I was luck enough to catch a massive tidal wave of interest in fantasy. Robert Jordan, Tad Williams and Robin Hobb were all selling strongly, and the first Harry Potter book was published in the same month as mine. My timing couldn't have been better if I had planned it that way.

"It is true fantasy fiction had languished a little in the 1980s, when lit-grit ruled, but by the late 1990s it was very popular. Australian authors such as Sara Douglass had already proved that Australians were prepared to buy up local fantasy titles in a big way (as long as they were good!). Why was fantasy so hot then (and now)? I believe it is because readers had got so tired of self-referential post-modernist texts and were longing for a return to narrative. Crime and romance and other strong narrative genres also became very popular around that time, and continue to sell very well.

"Basically, I believe people love a good story ... one that makes you laugh and cry and gasp  and fear ... and that is what I always try and create."

What are the core elements of a fantasy novel?
KF: "A big story, in every sense of the word. Big ideas, big problems, big drama, big action. Characters you can love, and love to hate. A fascinating world that feels real. A plot full of twists and turns and switches and surprises. And, possibly most importantly, sincerity. I think the writer has to care about what she or she is writing, and have a story they're genuinely compelled to write."

Where do you begin when you're writing one – world building, character?
KF: "I always begin with the story. I spend a lot of time daydreaming about it, and about the people who might inhabit such a story, and the place it might be set. I only begin to write once I have a strong sense of the shape of the story, its narrative arc. I always know my beginning and my end, and a few key scenes along the way, before I start writing." 

Your new novel, The Wild Girl (out April 2013), is not fantasy, but still has its roots in fairytales, an area of strong interest for you. Do fairytales still have a place in a world where facts and information are so much a part of our daily life?
KF: "Of course! Fairy tales, like all stories, are essential to human beings. They encode the life lessons we all need to learn. They teach us empathy and wisdom, and they offer us an escape into boundless possibility, enabling us to re-imagine the way our world should be."

Last question, how do you write so many books? Do you have a strict writing schedule?
KF: "Well, I write all day nearly every day. During the week, I'm usually at my desk from 10am to 6pm with a short break for lunch. One the weekend, I usually only write for a couple of hours, and quite often I only write in my diary or work longhand in my notebook to give myself a break from the computer. Of course, when I'm on a research trip or touring for publicity I don't write so much - but then I really miss it. I love the discipline of what I do, the intensity of focus. I don't know how else to do it!"

Visit Kate Forsyth on Twitter, Facebook or at her website. She is also a prolific reviewer on GoodReads, and a worthy follow for any bookworm. Her last book, Bitter Greens, has been described as a 'magnficent reworking of the Rapunzel tale' and I can't wait to read her next, The Wild Girl, in April.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Three things I've learned in my third year of blogging

Today marks the first day of my fourth year of blogging. Amazing to think that I've been here at the Fibro for more than 1000 days. I think you get less for certain crimes these days...

When I completed my first year of blogging, I wrote this post: 12 things I've learned in my first year of blogging.

At the end of my second year, I wrote this one: 12 things I learned in my second year of blogging.

Now that I've closed out my third year, I've decided to break it down to three things I've learned in my third year of blogging. Not because I've learned less - but maybe because I'm finally on to the fact that less is more. Particularly when it comes to blogging.

So here, in no particular order, are the three things I learned in my third year of blogging:

1. Money changes everything. Think long and hard about whether you want to 'monetise' your blog - and how you might do it - because the minute you do, it all changes. I know this because I've watched it happen. I have no judgement to make on whether the changes are good or bad, because I think they're different for everyone. But go into it with your eyes wide open. Writing for money changes your writing. This I know.

2. Blogging is like marriage. It has its ups and downs, its better and worse. I've found it much more difficult to maintain my passion for it this year, mostly because I'm writing 'third' anniversary posts. The first time you write an Anzac Day post, it's full of all the things you think about Anzac Day. The second time, it's the first time with some add-ins. The third time... well, you're as likely to pop up a picture of a flag.

It's not easy to front up to the same blog on a regular basis and find things to say. These things need to be worked at. Like the best marriages.

The best bloggers are the ones who can keep it fresh every single time. Who write, as the venerable Mrs Woog told me once, as though every reader is visiting their blog for the very first time.

I take my hat off to them.

3. Your team is the key. I've written before about the importance of community in blogging. So many times. But this year I'd like to recognise Team Fibro. The people who take the time to visit this blog, comment, share my posts, and generally just pop in, have been my cheerleaders in a year of writing, edits, highs, lows, and general ennui. Never underestimate the power of a good team, particularly when you're working on your own.

Thank you.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Starting out: So you want to be a freelance writer?

When I spoke at the Problogger Conference in 2012, I also had the opportunity to attend the many fabulous sessions on offer. At one of those, uber-blogger Chris Guillebeau spoke about Making Money and Changing the World Through Blogging. Chris said a lot of good things and I was most impressed by how happy he looked, but I do remember this: "Never compare your beginning to someone else's middle." The quote seems to belong to author Jon Acuff, but the sentiment belongs to us all. It also got me thinking.

I know that a lot of members of the Fibro community are aspiring freelance writers and I enjoy sharing some of the stuff I've learnt about freelancing over the years. But sometimes it helps to hear from someone who's in the same boat as you are. So I'm starting a new series called Starting Out, in which I'm going to share guest posts from people who are... starting out.

Today's post comes from travel writer Megan Blandford. I met Megan a couple of years ago through blogging, and Twitter and all the other good stuff. She wanted to make the jump from writing on her own blog to writing for other people - and she has. She's written for publications such as Practical Parenting, the Jetstar inflight mag, My Career, Go Camping and 4WD Action, as well as websites such as iVillage, NRMA and Essential Baby.

Here's some of what she's learnt along the way.

Want to be a freelance writer? Here’s the tough advice you need to hear. 

Writers throw around a lot of airy-fairy talk of muses and inspiration and chasing dreams and creative flows – all of which is fine in the right context. But when you’re trying to run your own writing business sometimes you need to face some harsher realities.

 I always wanted to be a writer but the question of HOW? was a puzzle. The answer came in the form of some home truths, and once those were given to me (thanks Allison!) all the pieces fell together to create a new career.

What does life look like now? I stay home with my two children and work from home around them, writing about topics that intrigue me. I travel for my work, too, going to destinations that fit in with my family life to write and photograph for magazines and websites. Sounds pretty good – and it is. But it doesn’t come without its challenges.

So you want to live your dream and be a freelance writer? Here’s the blunt advice you need to hear first:

 •Consider doing a course. Before you make any career change you need to be informed and arm yourself with some new skills. Writing is no different. I did the AustralianWriters’ Centre course in magazine writing, and it both confirmed the knowledge I already had and taught me more about the industry I wanted to join.

 •You will face rejections. Over and over again. A turning point for me was hearing that even the most experienced and successful freelance writers still face rejection and – in my opinion, the worst reaction – silence. Once I stopped taking rejections personally it all became easier.

•Take on advice. It doesn’t matter how much you disagree, the editor of a publication is always right. Learn from them by analysing your rejections and what you could have done better.

 •Try and try again. I like to think of a ‘no’ email as an opening to a conversation: they’ve answered me, and now I can try another pitch. Building relationships means showing them you have plenty of ideas to offer that their readers will love.

 •Your skills need honing – now and forever. Practice, practice, practice. Your writing needs constant attention, as do your ideas – the more time you give to both (and really, ideas can be worked on right throughout your day) the more you’ll succeed.

•Treat it like any other business. If you’re serious about making this a viable venture, you need to treat it like a business. That means managing your finances and bookkeeping, setting goals, marketing yourself, chasing new business and building relationships. Odds are that you won’t feel confident in all these areas but the reality is that you need to learn.

 •Use the skills you have. What’s your background? You could use your skills and knowledge to get you started by writing in your field of expertise. Are you a parent? There are countless parenting magazines and websites you could target. What do you want to know more about? Chances are someone else wants to know more about it too, so think about how to get that information out there.

•Consider different forums in which to write. These days it’s pretty hard to make a living writing just for magazines. Consider other outlets, like writing for websites, magazines and corporates (newsletters and blog posts, for example).

•Perhaps don’t quit your day job just yet. Freelance writing is hard work and it takes time to build up steady work and an income that you can rely on. Many writers start gradually, building up their freelance income and phasing out their old job. And with all that out the way, good luck chasing your dreams!

Megan Blandford is a freelance writer who specialises in family travel and creating online content. Megan lives on the outskirts of Melbourne with her family, and you can find her rambling her way through life at Writing Out Loud

Are you starting out as a freelance writer? Would you add anything to Megan's tips?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Someone else's story

One of the joys of being a 'pantser' (that is, someone who writes by the seat of her pants, with no plotting in advance) is reading through the story once you've finished. Half the time, you can't remember a word you wrote and so you end up reading a book that was, ostensibly, written by someone else. Or at least I do.

You may remember that I took part in NaNoWriMo in November last year. While I didn't 'win' and hit the 50,000-word mark, I achieved a respectable 46,000 words or so and ended up within spitting distance of finishing my story, a children's manuscript. I started the month with a paragraph of an idea and ended up with an epic adventure. How this occurred is a mystery to me, too.

I think one of the most valuable things about an exercise like NaNoWriMo is the fact that to make the word goal, you have to simply write. Words on the page. And when you have to get them out, it's amazing what comes out of your subconscious.

In the ensuing month or so, I wrote an ending and have begun reading the story aloud to Mr9, my harshest critic, looking for 'boring bits'. We have found more than a few, but he has also laughed in bits that I'd hoped were funny and look worried in bits that I'd hoped were worrisome.

It's not yet finished, but his advice so far: "Chuck in a few more battles, Mum. That'll sort it." I might add that this is always his advice. (I'm thinking that nuanced character studies may not be his forte.)

So now (having done some hasty research on 'how to write battle scenes') I'm going back to page one to review it all.

I'm actually looking forward to it.

There's nothing better than editing someone else's work.

Do you ever read something you've written and think 'where did that come from'? Or is it just me?

[image features Mr9's well-loved bear Bronte. She's a bit famous.]

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Working from home in the holidays? What was I thinking?

This whole month can be filed under 'what was I thinking?'. Usually I try to keep work to a minimum in the school holidays. For some reason, I decided the boys were old enough this year to amuse themselves a bit while I got some work done during the day.

They'd watch a DVD or play the Wii or do whatever it is that young boys do to while away the hours quietly, so I was perfectly safe to take on a feature or two.

Or so I thought.

When you have small children at home and people find out you work from home, they think you're nuts. "How do you do it?" they ask, breathlessly. I wrote my first feature when Mr9 was three months old and just sort of got back into the saddle from there.

The truth is, it gets harder as they get older. When they're little, they sleep during the day. And I got very good at squeezing interviews and features into the two hour window of the midday sleep. Sleep time is very, very quiet time.

Now that they're older, they are good at entertaining themselves. They will play Lego, do the DVD thing, play the Wii, read a book, colour in, whatever. But they're never quiet. There's always bickering, they're always hungry, and, frankly, they just want to have a chat sometimes. Two hours is just a dream. I work in 15-minute snatches, and only once we've done some kind of kid-friendly out-of-the-house activity to a) tire them out and b) appease the Mother Guilt that eats me alive no matter how much I try to tame it.

I've always worked at night. But nine years ago I was... younger. I could do a full day with the kids, have a 4pm coffee, and work until midnight. Now I simply don't want to. I have got used to writing in the daytime. I like it. Going back to my nocturnal habits just makes me tired.

I have three deadlines this week. What was I thinking?

Are you working from home this holidays? Did you organise yourself better than I have, or are you wondering what you were thinking as well?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The long, hot summer

It has been so long since we had an actual summer, I'd forgotten what one felt like.

Now I remember.

For a week, Fibrotown has been getting on with business under a haze of smoke. The streets are full of people in bright orange, their reflective strips flashing in the sunlight as they walk. We wake in the morning with the smell of smoke in the air, rising with the heat of the day. We go to sleep to the wail of fire engines echoing through the night. The highway opens and closes.

A marquee city has sprung up at the Fibrotown Showground, full of services to support volunteer firefighters in the area. It looks for all the world as though an epic music festival is about to begin.

Mr6 plays fire rescue on the rug.

The bushfires are down the coast a bit, near the homes of friends, but all are safe and well. I spent the first few days monitoring the radio and obsessively checking the Rural Fire Service website. My parents, veterans of several fires in this area over the years, reassured me that it would never get to us. I checked for our Neighbourhood Safer Place, just in case. It is one block from our house. I was reassured.

So far, so good.


On Friday night, Fam Fibro headed out to the beach for some much-needed respite from the heat and the general business of living. We spent a pleasant hour crashing through waves trying to teach the boys to body surf (my technique needs more work than theirs, I'd point out), followed by fish and chips overlooking the bay. We left for home refreshed and relaxed.

On the way home, we passed a convoy of high-wheeling bush-bashing RFS fire trucks, packed with volunteers, a new shift on their way to keep the Dean's Gap fire, 30 minutes further south, contained.

I have friends who are RFS members. Up until now, they seem to have mostly been involved with open days, sausage sizzles and demonstrations at the Fibrotown Show.

When the chips are down, however, they are the ones in orange.

I am swimming.

It makes a person think.


Today I stood behind two serious young men at the supermarket checkout as they piled 40 kilograms of mushrooms, dozens of cartons of eggs, piles of packets of bacon and countless loaves of bread into their trolley. Their bright red shirts read Emergency Catering Services.

"They bought only the best stuff," said the checkout lady as they laboured out with their heaving trollies. "Premium steak. Helga's bread. No home brand at all."

"Good," I said, trying to balance my peaches on the back of the conveyor belt to ensure they went into the bag on top. "Those volunteers deserve the best."

Tonight, it rained. The first rain of the year, as Mr9 gleefully pointed out.

Relief all round.

You can find more information here on supporting the NSW Rural Fire Service, and more information here on how to volunteer.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dance like nobody's watching

Sometimes you just have to crank the music up and dance. Actually, let me amend that statement. Just like you never regret a swim, you never regret a dance. Well, I don't.

I've always been one of those people who dance like nobody's watching - mostly because, particularly these days, nobody is. Just me, my iPod and, if I'm lucky, Mr6*, who never watches, he just gets right on in there and shakes his tail feather.

My music of choice for such moments is pure pop. Katy Perry. Taio Cruz's Dynamite (which always makes me think of Katrina Chambers, who rocked it so hard during her season of The Block). One Direction.

What can I say? If you're going to leap around the living room, singing at the top of your lungs, your pride is pretty much shot anyway...

But I highly recommend it. It always makes me feel better. It will make you feel better, I promise.

Remember, baby, you're a firework**.

Do you dance at home when the feeling takes you? What's your song of choice?

*New Year, new ages: introducing Mr9 and Mr6.
**Sorry, couldn't resist.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A goal without a plan...

Ahem. *Clears throat*

First blog post for 2013 and my voice feels a little rusty. Doesn't take much to get out of the habit, now does it?

I've used my two weeks off to think long and hard about my goals for this year.

Actually, that's a lie. I've used my two weeks off to drink wine, hang out with friends and family, take my boys to the beach, finish my experimental children's book manuscript, eat too much, open presents, visit the Alexander the Great exhibition at the Australian Museum, do a little shopping, read several books and, for the most part, not think about goals of any description.

But that first sentence sounded much more impressive, right?

The truth is that I do need to clarify my thoughts about what I'd like to achieve this year. I am even considering dragging out the butcher's paper and drawing a mind map or something. I have friends who do this on a regular basis and it seems to work well for them. My goals tend to be along the lines of 'I might write a book this year' or 'Maybe I'll try... X'. This approach has also worked quite well for me, but I feel as though I lost my way a bit in 2012. Too much waft. Not enough outcome.

So my goal for 2013, at this stage, can be clarifed as such: "Work smarter, not harder."

Quite how I will manage this is yet to be decided. But I'm going to talk to some people, make some decisions, Google stuff. You know. Because I know that a goal without a plan is a dream. Even if I don't know who first said that.

I've got some amazing things happening this year - my first novel, Talk of The Town, is on its way, for starters, and I'll be speaking at two different conferences later in the year. As far as the Fibro is concerned, I'm hoping to bring back the Facebook chats, bring you more industry information and writing tips, and write a post about the dust on my sideboard (just for Jodi). Bet you can't wait!

I'm moving into my fourth year of blogging at the Fibro and, you know what, I think this might be the best year yet!

So tell me, do you have a goal for 2013? And what's your plan to achieve it?

photo credit: Jungle_Boy via photopin cc
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