5 lessons from my Nanowrimo win

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My first attempt at Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2014 lasted one day. I had a vague story idea, met the estimated daily word count of 1667 and gave in.

During our visit to Vietnam in July 2016, I had the urge to write a book about our posting. I wrote about 8000 words during Nanowrimo but decided moving and writing was too hard.

This year, I have focused on my writing, doing a couple of Australian Writer’s Centre courses, blogging more, listening to writing podcasts, and joining writing groups on Facebook. I have also read more – 35 books, and with 2 weeks left in the year, I’m fairly confident of hitting my target of 40 books.

All of these things meant that when Nanowrimo discussions started to ramp up, I was determined to win. After abandoning (for now) the idea to write a book about my Dad, I decided to write a romantic historical fiction based here in the Barossa. I set my novel up on my Nanowrimo page and announced it to the world. I even went along to the launch party with a group of other Adelaide writers.

I won, writing 50,000 words in November. I learned a lot about writing, my writing style and routines and the things you need to be a successful writer.

Here are my 5 top lessons

 1. Find your writing tribe

I think this was probably the most important thing for me. I joined the So you want to be a writer podcast Facebook group and the Nanowrimo Adelaide Facebook group and connected with people on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I shared updates on my word counts, encouraged others and was inspired as others shared their success. The encouragement from so many strangers was amazing, and in these groups, I actually felt like I was really a writer.

I also shared updates on my own Facebook page and social media, which was great for accountability. Friends understood it when I said I needed to write and I also appreciated the encouragement.

 2. Just start writing

Even on the days I couldn’t be bothered or thought I didn’t have time, I knew I just needed to start. I would tell myself I would just write 200 words or write for 15 minutes. These were strategies I had learned doing Alison Tait’s Make Time to Write course and they really work. It’s the strategy I’m using as I write this post, which I’ve been meaning to write for almost 3 weeks.

Once I started writing, the ideas started flowing and I would find myself getting completely caught up in the story. While it was annoying to be interrupted to go to work, or take the boys to sport, it meant that the next time I sat down to write, I wasn’t stuck for ideas.

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3. Get the story down

This advice was from my friend Emma Grey. Seeing Emma’s success with her young adult novel Unrequited, which she wrote during Nanowrimo a couple of years ago has been a huge inspiration. One day when I was feeling stuck writing dialogue and descriptions about the characters and landscape, Emma told me to just get the story down because once I had that, I could go back and fill in the gaps. It was great advice and I would find myself getting completely carried away with the story, coming up with ideas and angles I hadn’t expected. Writing a novel that covers a period from the 1840s until now, I will have to fill in some historical gaps, but I knew I couldn’t get caught up in researching or I wouldn’t get 50,000 words written. And if I had started editing my work, I would no doubt have started doubting my ideas and writing ability.

4. Scrivener is amazing

Scrivener is an amazing software program that organises a novel by chapter and scenes. It is very visual, allowing you to see which scenes are finished and which need more work. There are options to tag each scene with things like the year, characters, point of view etc.  I was a bit worried that learning a new software program would distract me from writing but Nanowrimo participants get an extended trial period and I signed up to the Australian Writer’s Centre 2 hour online course with Natasha Lester in October. The course provided loads of great tips on using Scrivener and working through the modules, I was able to plot out my novel ready to start writing on 1 November. I loved the option of being able to set a daily word target and watch my progress.

I was excited that Scrivener 3 was released just as Nanowrimo finished and I was able to  take advantage of the 50 per cent discount for winners. I am definitely a convert and look forward to going back to my Vietnam memoir now I have an easy way to organise that parts I have written.

 

 5. Try to stick to a regular routine

I suspended my gym membership for November because I’d been struggling with injury and illness and I just wanted to give myself a month to get well. It is probably lucky I did, because my strategy to write every day, even for 15 minutes before bed would often result in me getting completely caught up in my story, and going to bed after midnight, where I often couldn’t sleep because my mind was so full of my story and characters. It took me the first week of December to re-set my sleeping habits and get back to the gym. I also ate way more chocolate that I should have. I don’t recommend this strategy and next year, I’ll be fitting my writing in around exercise and sleep.

While I know I could not write at that pace long-term, Nanowrimo was definitely a great opportunity to focus on getting a story written and reaching 50,000 words has given me the confidence to believe that I might one day finish writing a novel (hopefully this one).

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On running and writing

In the last couple of months, while I’ve been very quiet on this blog, I have actually been doing a lot of writing – and next month, I’m about to do a lot more. 50,000 words more in fact.

After thinking about it for a long time, in September I finally signed up for the Australian Writers Centre Magazine and Newspaper writing course. I had been thinking about doing this ever since the blog post about the photo-shopped school photos went viral and I saw large chunks of my blog post being reproduced. I decided that if I was going to write, perhaps I could get paid for it.

The five-week online course equipped me a lot of useful information and tools, including how to pitch articles, how to structure an article, how to analyse a publication and how to interview. It was delivered via audio each week, with a weekly task which was shared in an online classroom and for which we received feedback. I really enjoyed interviewing a classmate and writing a profile. Completing each of the weekly exercises meant that by the end of the course, I almost had a complete article and pitch ready to use. Most importantly, the course gave me the confidence to give freelance writing a go.

A week after the course ended, I pitched my first story. I decided I was going to participate in the Runaway Barossa half-marathon that I had entered back in June, despite having spent the winter injured or sick. The day before the race, I decided to pitch the story to the local paper and set myself a somewhat unreasonable deadline of providing an article “on-spec” by Monday morning. The editor came back to me and said that while there was unlikely to be space in the weekly print version of the paper, they could run it online.

I survived the 21km, which started with a 4km jog, moved to a jog/walk,  a walk and finally a stagger towards the finish line (and Riesling). After spending Sunday in Adelaide,  I left my story to the last minute (something I will not be making a habit of) and spent Monday morning frantically putting something together. Within an hour of providing it to the editor, it was shared online and while I was disappointed in the lack of proof reading and by the fact I hadn’t pushed for payment, it was still a good experience. I was feeling bad that I had worked for free until a number of people who had graduated from the course said this was still good experience as long as I was clear about why and when I would work for free.

While I have a couple of ideas about features I would like to write, my next step is to speak to a couple of editors and see where there is scope for paid work. One of the big lessons I have learned that unlike blogging, feature writing is not about my opinion and in fact, the trick is to keep yourself out of it.

Launching a freelance writing side-career would probably be enough to keep me going for the rest of the year, but NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow and I am giving it another go. The National Novel Writing Month (which started in the US and is now international) is a month long “competition” with the aim of writing 50,000 words. I lasted a day in 2014 (which probably had something to do with trying to write fiction on the barest of outlines) and got about 10,000 words done last year before moving in and setting up our house took over.

I had initially planned to start a novel/memoir of Dad’s life but given the interviews and research it will require, I have instead decided to try a work of fiction. I’m going to have a go at writing the sort of family/inter generational saga/romance that I’ve enjoyed since I first read the Thornbirds as a teenager. Tentatively titled “Budburst”, it will be set here in the Barossa and I’m hoping to weave some historical stories alongside a modern story. I’ve been having a lot of fun plotting it out and I’m making the most of free access to the Scrivener writing app to draw up a rough outline of the chapters. I’ve also been doing lots of research about local history although once Wednesday rolls around, my aim will be to write 1667 words every day and finish the month with a basic story – and a long list of questions to follow up.

I have a few friends who have done it in the past, including my friend Emma, who wrote her novel Unrequited (published by Harper Collins and is being performed as a musical in Canberra this week) during NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago. I went along to the Adelaide kick-off party for NaNoWriMo and have also connected with a few other people I’ve met through a couple of podcast groups,  that are planning to do it – so hopefully we’ll be able to keep each other motivated.

Given how long it has take me to write this post, I can’t promise I’ll be blogging in November, but at the same time, once I’m back in the daily habit of writing, knocking out a quick blog post might actually be welcome relief from working on my manuscript. After surving that half-marathin, I’m feeling like anything is possible!

Writing true stories

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Me and my Dad – late 1974

Last week, I decided that for Father’s Day, I would write a blog post about my Dad, who died almost 8 years ago. I sent a group message to my immediate family – my Mum, my two sisters and brother, brother-in-law and my husband because he isn’t just MY Dad. He is a husband and a father and a father-in-law. I wanted to make sure that whatever I wrote would not upset anyone. At first I put off writing because my Dad crammed a lot into his 83 years and his story is really interesting. There was so much I wanted to say but as I try and keep my blog posts under 1000 words, I wasn’t sure how to fit it all in.

Once I started writing, I was on a roll, and I actually mentioned to Mum that we should write a book. Mum had written a lot about Dad when he died,  stemming from the eulogy she gave at his funeral and I’m sure my siblings would have a lot to add. But that was a project for another time and for now, I just wanted to write a short piece to celebrate his life on Father’s Day.

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Our Wedding Day – and our family altogether. My Dad and Grandma at the front, then my niece, brother in law, sister, me, Simon, Mum, my Poppy, my sister in law, brother and sister. Canberra, October 2006

Born in 1926, Dad arrived in Australia as a two year old during the Great Depression. He left school young, built a career in Wollongong, first in BHP in employment, then in public relations, and then subsequent careers working for the Illawarra Hawks basketball team and at the Novotel before retiring at 73. He was involved in football (the round ball kind – soccer), was a patron of over 130 ethnic groups, was instrumental in establishing a business networking organisation, was involved in local and state politics (including as an alderman on local council and a campaign manager), had an Italian Knighthood and an Order of Australia. He was married twice and had two sets of kids – who are all to this day, close. Dad loved music, sport, the occasional round of golf, food, red wine and good whiskey.

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Front page of the Illawarra Mercury – my sister and I with Dad when he received his Italian knighthood

I’d almost succeeded in drafting a concise history of my Dad, when Simon suggested we go and visit the new gin bar down the road. Despite the fact that it was cold, wet and windy and going out would require a change from tracksuit pants and ugg boots and some make-up, it was Father’s Day, so I agreed. I was also glad to have a break from writing because I was finding it harder than usual to write the last paragraph. How could I wrap up this short history of Dad’s life and do it justice? I’d also made the mistake of reading the eulogy I wrote for Dad’s funeral and looking at the photos we’d put together for a slide show and I was a bit teary.

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Dad and Angus (about 1 month old), January 2009

So off to The Stillery we went for a G&T (from a list of about 20 which includes the Barossa Distilling Company’s own gin), half a dozen oysters and a cheese platter. A nice escape on a chilly day and I even found myself wondering whether it was acceptable to schedule an afternoon G&T writing session every couple of weeks! While the Barossa might be known for it’s wine, there are a number of craft beer, cider and spirits producers doing some really interesting things.

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But I digress – this post is about writing, not drinking! When I got home, I continued to work on the blog about Dad, but I was still finding it hard and I think for the first time I realised that perhaps I had been wrong in thinking that non-fiction was easier than fiction.  Apart from a few thousand words on a fiction novel for my first attempt at Nanowrimo (the national novel writing month where participants aim to complete a 50,000 word manuscript  in November)  in 2014, my recent writing efforts have focused on a memoir of my time in Vietnam and blog posts. I assumed that writing non-fiction would be easier because I didn’t have to be creative. It was just writing about my experiences and opinions. But nothing could be further from the truth. What I am now realising is that writing non-fiction involves so much research, fact-checking and the risk  that the way you portray a person or experience might offend someone, which is even worse if you are writing about someone who isn’t around to give their take on the story.

I am still keen to write a story about my Dad, and I would also like to explore the possibility of writing something longer than a blog post. But I have realised that I need to learn some skills to give me the confidence to accurately and authentically tell true stories. Next week, I’m starting my first formal writing course – Magazine and Newspaper Writing Stage 1 through the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’m hoping that writing more, and having my work critiqued will give me the confidence to write my true stories – and in the meantime, I might just dip my toe into the world of creative writing and see what I come up with.

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Dad wasn’t known for his cooking – apart from his bacon wrapped scallops!

So many books, so little time (to write)!

At the beginning of the year, I did a great “Make Time to Write” course through the Australian Writer’s Centre. I very quickly realised that I was making too many excuses about why I wasn’t writing. I also quickly realised that if I set the clock for 30 – or even 15 minutes – I could write a few hundred words. But it’s generally stream of consciousness stuff and it’s the sort of writing I do well at the end of the day when thoughts have been spinning around my head while I’ve been working or driving or hanging out with my family during the day. The challenge is then sitting down the next day to polish those words, find the photos and links and publish a blog post. Of late, that’s where I have fallen down.

But the other reason I haven’t been writing much is that I’m spending alot of my limited spare time reading and watching TV. Having a (long) list of books I’d like to read and movies and TV I’d like to watch is nothing new. I’ve often had lists scribbled on paper, notes or photos in my phone and in the last year, have had a list on the Goodreads app – which is really handy when browsing the shelves of a library or book shop.

When I started listening to Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales Chats 10 Looks 3 podcast, my book list started to grow exponentially, as did my list of TV shows, movies, podcasts and must-cook recipes but the podcast was on every couple of weeks at best as so I could almost keep up.

Then came the Facebook group – and things are officially out of control. In a few weeks, the group has grown to nearly 13,000 members and probably fills 85 per cent of my Facebook feed. Not that I am complaining, because it is one of the most enjoyable Facebook groups I’ve been a part of. Annabel, Leigh and the amazing Brenda have made sure that the focus is firmly on books, TV shows, movies and cooking. When it comes to cooking, I’d say the posts a a fair split between “Chatter’s crack” – a moreish recipe from Smitten Kitchen made from salada biscuits, caramel and chocolate topped with nuts (which I eventually made – and demolished), Ottolenghi dishes and everything else.  There’s no nastiness and very little whinging and complaining. It is one of the most positive and uplifting online spaces I have been a part of.

Chatter’s Crack – Thanks Smitten Kitchen

But then the books! My Goodreads list is growing faster than ever, there is a tower of books on my beside table that threatens to squish me in the night and I’ve found myself jumping between hardcover books (two at a time), an audio book and a couple of books on my iPad – and still ordering books and borrowing from the library.  And TV shows. In the last few weeks, we have binge watched three seasons of The Americans (and would have moved on to the next two seasons if they were available), series 2 of Cleverman, Utopia (so I can have flashbacks to my public service life), the Handmaid’s Tale (incredible and confronting but I can’t wait for Season Two) and I’ve started on Season One of Top of the Lake.  And it goes without saying that I’m watching the 7.30 Report and The House!

My current “To Be Read” pile – and this doesn’t include the books on my iPad and the other pile on the floor

I feel like I am on some sort of reading and watching bootcamp, anxiously trying to keep up and plough through the required reading and viewing. Being part of this club sharing photos of your TBR (to be read) pile, and obsessing over what to read, watch and cook next. I’m missing the days of having sick leave and no children (although I probably shouldn’t have said that in earshot of my six year old) but I am loving the excuse to read more. I feel like I’m part of a big online book club.

Spending more of my time reading has probably cut into to my writing time, but as I learned earlier in the year, it is just about carving out small parts of my day. At the same time, I know that part of becoming a better writing is reading more. And the more I read, the more books I hear about and see, the more I believe that I have got a story to share that is unique and will find an audience.

As always, I get to the end of a post, and I’m never quite sure how to wrap things up, so I am just going to leave this Oliver Sachs quote from the beautiful Insomniac City by Bill Hayes (one of my favourite books this year) – which has inspired me to keep writing.

“The most we can do is to write – intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively – about what it is like living in the world at this time”. Oliver Sachs, April 2015

Insomniac City – a beautful book by Bill Hayes about his life his relationship with Oliver Sachs and New York. Beautiful writing and photos – so glad I was reading a hard copy version

 

 

Long live the blog

When I first left work 3 years ago and moved to the Barossa, I was excited about starting a blog. It would be about my career change, and our new life and after 15 years working for government, I could say whatever I wanted. Over time it has included career change interviews, cooking, travel (both local trips and some of my favourite places in Vietnam) as well as my experiences with starting-up (and winding-down) my own business.  More My blogging has been erratic at best and I have often struggled to come up a proper blog post with photos – not to mention having any sort of theme. But I’ll happily write a Facebook post.

One of the reasons I wanted to blog was to have a conversation and engage with other people. But despite sharing my posts across social media, I wasn’t really seeing that many people (apart from family and friends) visiting or reading. While this probably has alot to do with the inconsistent subject matter and posts, I did wonder whether people were actually reading blogs anymore. Is our online time now taken up with Facebook groups, podcasts and other social media?

After deciding to try and write a book last year, I have looked at blogging as a way to improve my writing. Then a couple of months ago, a post about my son’s photo shopped teethpost about my son’s photo shopped teeth went viral and was republished in a number of places. It made me think that perhaps rather than spending my time blogging for free, I should start focusing on writing paid pieces and use Facebook to build a community and engage with people on a more regular basis.

I put this question to the Chats 10 Looks 3 Facebook group. This group of fans (aka “chatters”) of the podcast by Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales started about 2 weeks ago and already has over 7000 members. Given that they are a very well-read bunch, I figured it was a good place to start – do you blog? Do you still read blogs?

I was quite excited and a bit surprised by the answers. While there is no doubt that people are using Facebook more to interact and engage with their online communities, a blog is still seen as a more personal space to write longer pieces – even if there isn’t the engagement from readers. It is a space you can personalise and it is yours. As someone pointed out, you don’t have control over your Facebook post and what happens if Facebook blocks you?

For many people, they are just happy to have the space to write for their own enjoyment and that of their readers – even when the group might be small. For writers and authors (and those starting out) a blog seems to be a great platform. For many people it is a more personal way of sharing their story – whether it be fighting an illness, parenting, building a career or travelling. In some cases, blog posts have led to paid writing gigs and other job opportunities.

When I posted the question, I was really trying to decide whether to keep blogging but after so many lovely comments (and a long list of new blogs to add to my reading list), not only have a decided to keep blogging, but I’ve written a post!

Do you blog? Do you still read blogs?

And if you don’t feel like commenting below, please visit my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/wordsbyange/ and we can have a chat there.

So many things to read means not nearly enough time to write

What do I write about now?

I’m still blown away by the response to my post about the Photoshopping of my son’s teeth in his school photo.

I was so chuffed to have bloggers that I’ve followed for ages share my post. Then a couple of journalists got in touch, news.com.au ran an article and then this morning on the way to hockey a friend rang to say she’d just seen them talking about it on the Today Show. Another journalist rang me at home – he was wondering if Gappy McGapster and I would like to have our photo taken for the Sunday paper. I declined but said while I was surprised about the response, I hoped it would make all of us think about being more authentic with the photos we share and post. I love the photos Lauren from The Thud shares that remind us that so many of the photos we see on social media are carefully curated (and probably filtered if not photoshopped).

 

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Gappy thinks its all hilarious and as we left a 1st Birthday party yesyerday he said, “I’m surprised more people didn’t recognise me from Mrs Woog’s Page – he’s eight!

But while it is exciting to watch lots of people coming to read my post, I’m not kidding myself that I’m about to turn into some overnight blogging sensation. It has encouraged me to write a bit more but to be honest, I feel a bit how I imagine a debut artist feels when their first song hits number 1 – where to next?

Over the last 3 years, I’ve been a fairly inconsistent blogger and I’ve struggled to find a “theme” and thus an audience. I started the blog as an outlet when I left the public service and we moved from Vietnam to the Barossa. I was excited about the freedom to write about whatever I wanted. I have written posts about recipes, travel advice, career change and starting a business (and failing), as I’ve undergone my own transformation from diplomat to student, trade consultant and business owner and now writer and jack of all trades for a winemaker.

 

I wrote the post about the photoshopped teeth because it mattered to me so maybe I just need write about the things that matter to me, the things that make me smile, the things I like. Maybe they won’t always be popular or headline grabbing, but that’s not what this is about.

Right now, the list of things that matter to me is long – marriage equality, gender equality, climate change, access to health and education,  health and fitness, resilience (especially in kids), opening our homes and hearts to refugees, preserving our heritage and environment.

I love food and I used to love cooking until I had to do it every night. I love wine and I’m loving learning more about the industry from growing grapes to making the wine and then selling it. Admitting my business had failed was hard, but I love not having to juggle so much. I think social media is great but I probably show my age that I really only use Facebook, Instagram and occasionally Twitter (although it’s still my first stop for breaking news).

I love Crossfit when I go to bed early enough to get up, and I will run another half marathon this year – albeit very slowly. I love our old house but I am a crap housekeeper and need some serious motivation to get the garden under control. I love my family and I love seeing the boys embrace new things and make new friends (even if I moan about driving them around and constantly feeding them).

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My “beautiful” backyard

I love the Barossa but I miss my family and I miss living in Asia. I’m reliving our time in Hanoi through the book I’m trying to write – which at the moment is just many pages of  jumbled memories. I wish I had more time to write – and to read. I know I need to budget better, be more frugal and I’m currently obsessed by the war on waste – which means I do need to control my love of shopping and stuff!

So if any of that appeals. Stick around. Follow me on Instagram (especially if you like food, wine and beautiful scenery). Like my Facebook page – where I promise to share more than just blog posts and follow the blog because I can’t promise to be consistent or regular. Comments and debate welcome but play nicely and tell me where I can read your stuff. But mostly be good to each other, and yourself and enjoy life.

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No filter or photo shopping required on a winter day in the Barossa

Rediscovering the joy of writing

 

img_0058For the last 30 days, I have been doing a writing bootcamp as part of the Australian Writer’s Centre “Make Time to Write” course. I’ve woken up each morning and checked the tasks with a level of excitement. Some days I had to write 250 words, sometimes 500 words in 30 minutes, occasionally 1000 words. There were days where we were encouraged to stop, be creative, plan. We were encouraged to test writing at different times of the day. The key was to realise that we don’t need whole days locked away in silence to write. For most writers, its about finding small pockets of time during the day to just write.

I completed every task although there was a week where being on holidays and spending time with my sister and her family meant I didn’t write, but I didn’t give in and when I sat down to write, the words flowed. On those “catch-up” days, I realised I could actually write a lot – and sometimes, having had a break for a few days, I was filled with ideas and inspiration.

For the 30 days, apart from one blog post, I have focused on writing my memories about my visits to Vietnam – my first 12 days visit in 2003, our three and a half year posting between 2011 and 2014 and then an 8 day holiday last year. Once I started writing the memories flowed and on most days I surpassed the word count. In high school, I was always told quality not quantity, but during this course, I learned that it was better to have bad words to edit than no words at all. During the last 30 days, I haven’t edited or researched. I had a list of topics and quite often, starting to write on one topic, lead me to another.

The main aim of the course was finding time to write. I had barely blogged for the last year because “I never had time”. While I haven’t written apart from the book, I have finally rediscovered a love of writing that I had lost – if I’d even had it. I used to like the idea of writing but actually sitting and typing has seriously got the creative juices flowing and I’ve had several nights where it’s been after midnight when I’ve gone to sleep – either because I have been writing or researching about writing. I’ve found writers to follow on social media, found guides on writing (especially about travel memoirs) and actually started to believe that I could write a book.

The only downside to this new excitement is a few nights where I have struggled to go to sleep because my mind was buzzing with ideas for blog posts, rewriting my website and chapters for my Vietnam memoir. I’ve skipped more gym sessions that I should have because I’ve stayed up late writing and I just hope that now the boys are back at school, I can carve out a bit more time at reasonable hours so I am not leaving it until after 9pm to start writing down everything that has swirled around my head all day.
Rediscovering writing has been just the creative outlet I have needed and realising that I don’t need a whole day to write a blog post will hopefully mean I’ll update this blog a bit more. While I’ll continue to write about travel, career change and my Barossa life, I’ll also start sharing some more thoughts about writing and I expect, some draft chapters from my Vietnam book as it takes shape.

I hope you enjoy reading and I’d love to know what you think!