New year, new approach

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Beach walks in my hometown Wollongong

2017 was the year I started to write more. I started the Australian Writers Centre Make Time to Write course which I’d discovered during our visit to Vietnam in July 2016 when I decided to write a book about our time there. The 30 day boot-camp was a great kick start, and helped me add about 12,000 words to the 8000 I’d written during Nanowrimo 2016. I got back into a routine with my blog, especially when the post I wrote about a photo-shopped school photo went viral. Once I decided to wind up my consulting business, I started a 5 week online course with the Australian Writers Centre, joining the Freelance Masterclass program when I finished. I did Nanowrimo for third time and finally succeeded in writing for the whole month of November, putting down 50,000 words and making a good start on a book I’m looking at returning to in 2018.

But as I focused on my writing, my fitness went downhill and as we emerged from the long winter, I could no longer ignore that too much chocolate and wine as rewards for writing had resulted in me feeling unfit, fat and unmotivated. I needed to commit to moving every day – even if just for a 30 minute walk.

So while the idea of making New Year’s resolutions doesn’t really appeal to me, I decided that commiting to 30 minutes of exercise – alongside 30 minutes of writing every day seemed like a reasonable goal. I also know that its long enough to be of benefit but short enough to fit it in around everything else I need to do. I know that putting on my exercise gear or sitting down to write is half the battle. I never regret a walk or a workout and some of my best writing sessions have been when I have told myself I’ll just write for 10-15 minutes before school pick-up. Often I’ve had to leave with ideas still flowing which might once have been frustrating but I now know means I’m much more likely to be excited and inspired the next time I sit down to write.

While 30 minutes of exercise or writing in and of itself is worthwhile, I do have some goals in mind. I want to lose about 15-20 kilos (which I did 6 years ago when we were first in Hanoi) and run a half-marathon non-stop. I’d also like to conquer some fears and reach some goals in the gym. When it comes to writing, the goals are simple – get my first freelance piece published, build a successful side-career (1-2 articles a fortnight) and finish my manuscript.

In 2014 I left a career, in 2015 I started a business and wound it up in 2017. 2016 was about starting a new job and then dealing with my husband’s cancer diagnosis and recovery – and buying a house. So many big changes and challenges.

A great quote from surfer Layne Beachley at the Australian Museum’s 200 Treasures exhibition

2018 is about taking the resources and tools I already have to achieve the goals I have set. I have a couple of great writing communities including the support and advice offered through the Freelance Masterclass program. I have a great gym, trainer and community. I know how to eat well. 2018 is not about finding “shiny new things”. Instead it is about commiting – on a daily basis – to doing what I know works and applying the skills and knowledge I already have.

As a mother and wife, I know that I’ll never be able to carve out all the time I want to do “my” things. The mental load is real and the reality is, we all have the same 24 hours. Sure I’d love to not get up before 6am, but I know I need to if I want to get healthy again and have the energy I need to reach the goals I have set. I’d love a whole uninterrupted day to write, but that is probably not going to happen this year, so I just need to make the most of the snippets of time I have. Nanowrimo taught me this and I’ve also been loving Nat Newman’s messenger bot that sends me a message at an allocated time reminding me to write – which then lets me set a timer for however long I have.

The focus of this post might have been my writing and fitness but I’d remiss if I forgot to mention my reading goals. I have no doubt my enthusiasm for writing has been improved by the goal I set to read more in 2017. Using Goodreads, I set a challenge to read 25 books, that I kept increasing until it reached 40.  I read 38 books – which is probably the total of all the books I’d read in the 2-3 years previously. So this year, I’ve upped the ante and I’m aiming to read 45 books and because I like to make life “interesting”, I’ve also decided to cook at least one new recipe a week from one of my many cookbooks!

It has taken me a few years to get into the groove of part-time work, a side-gig and school pick-ups and after-school activities, I really feel like this might just be the year that it all comes together.

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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In praise of Book Week

Last week social media was full of Book Week. Friends shared photos of their kids, people on various groups asked for suggestions and shared photos and some lucky grown-ups even got to dress up too. So many posts were positive and fun – even if there was a level of stress and relief that book week comes but once a year.   

But occasionally there would be a post that would make me a little sad – parents complaining that Book Week was an imposition or a waste of time and suggesting their kids would just stay home. I get that not everyone enjoys being crafty but thanks to the internet and the $2 shop, there are loads of options.  I’m not saying it is something everyone has to enjoy but I think it sends a bad message to our kids that they should just skip things that they don’t enjoy or that takes a bit of extra effort. 

Our school reminded parents that Book Week was not about creating lots of extra work. Kids could wear their sports clothes and carry a sports related book. There was no rule that the book had to fit within the theme “Escape to Everywhere” or that movie tie-in books were out. On this, I have to admit to previously pushing my boys toward characters from books (not movies) but when our youngest said  he wanted to go as Yoda this year, I agreed with this post and decided this wasn’t important. He has loads of Star Wars books and he was excited about dressing up – and he is six! .

I love Book Week and always have. We are lucky that even in our small town, we have an amazing cheap shop that stocks everything! We also have a Spotlight close by. I could google patterns for costumes (although this can be dangerous) and the op-shop came in handy. I certainly don’t have the time I had the first year when I made Mr Funny’s shoe car (below) but we’ve still been able to come up with costumes with only minimal swearing and acceptable amounts of wine.

Our first book week in 2014 – just back in Australia and not working. Might have gone a little OTT

I thought about my Mum putting together our costumes every year and she worked wonders! Case in point is the photo below. Mum would have found clothes at the op-shop, and my rapunzel hair was plaited yellow crepe paper attached to a shower cap. I should point out, that the family photo albums provide evidence that my Mum was quite the fan of a dress-up – even if I am scarred by the year her Physical Culture team dressed up as the Seven Dwarves (with their stomachs as the faces…..and no, I am not finding a photo – just use your imagination).

Rapunzel and Mary from Mary May Quite Contrary – circa 1984

I don’t ever remember Mum complaining about book week, although I guess she was pretty happy when we started coming up with our own costumes. I remember going as Erica Yurken from my favourite book Hating Alison Ashley in Year 6 – which I seem to remember simply involved a more daggy (than usual) combination of my own clothes, bad hair and make-up. Come to think of it – probably what my 11 year old self was wearing.

This year I had planned to be extra organised – but the first trip to buy supplies (one Saturday after a rare girls’ night out) was not all that successful. By Wednesday, I realised I had to get moving, just in case anything failed. I had to get Willy Wonka and Yoda sorted. Praise the internet! A pattern for Yoda’s cape and a printable mask and printable Wonka bar wrappers and golden tickets (although the judges returned the Lindt bar bribe!). A $4 ladies dress cut off for Willy’s coat (who cares that I was cutting off the sleeves to fit the morning of the parade). Last year’s top hat, and one of my old wigs and a painted stick for a cane and we were done. Yoda’s original mask was a fail when I stapled it to the dining table (hence the printable mask). The light saber was his blue one wrapped in green crepe paper. The cape wasn’t hemmed but in this scenario done is perfect. The kids loved their costumes and that’s what mattered.

Willy Wonka and Yoda – Book Week 2017

After a week of rubbish weather, it was a lovely morning and we watched all the classes from Reception to Year 7 and the Disability Unit parade around the basketball court. So many great costumes and kids having such a great time. A group of Year 7 girls covered in cotton wool, including one in a bath as the sheep from Where is the Green Sheep? An incredible darlek. Footy and cricket players, princesses, Spidermen, lots of David Walliams and Roald Dahl characters. Old favourite books and some I’d never heard of. This the best bit of Book Week – seeing kids excited about books and . Teachers joined in the fun as Trolls, pirates, Harry Potter and animals. Then 450 kids danced to the theme from Ghostbusters and I’m from the country. Best of all – smiles – lots of them from the kids, their families and the school community – and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only grown-up plotting excuses for a dress-up party of our own!

Last year’s costumes – boys said no to face paint this year