Academic rituals, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, Time management, Writing strategies

The daily word count – overcoming procrastination

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If you had all the time in the world to write, would it make you a better writer – or would you just have more time to procrastinate? Even if you love to write more than anything else, why is it that a deadline is the push you need to get it done?

Perhaps one reason you are falling behind in your book, doctoral writing or dissertation is that you are not putting in enough writing time. Maybe you are skimping on your daily word count. Are you cheating in your assessment of what you actually do each week when it comes to writing? If you added up all the time you actually spent physically putting words down on the page, what would it add up to?

And if you simply can’t get started – why? It’s time for some reassessment of your work habits, and a little look at the cheating and self-delusion that writers, like dieters, are all guilty of doing of indulging in. Go on, admit it – when you told your supervisor that you wrote for five hours last week, was it in fact one hour and the rest of the time googling celebrities without makeup?

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Dieters delude themselves that it’s not cheating if they eat when no one sees them. Writers delude themselves that they are writing when no one sees them. Which is why so many seem to need a deadline to get anything done. It’s like the equivalent of a public weigh-in.

I am no stranger to the motivation of a deadline. What writer hasn’t cleaned the stove, mowed the lawn or rearrange the sock drawer to avoid the blank page? Doctoral students are even worse, with that supposedly long period of time stretching endlessly into the distance – until the final deadline looms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about deadlines these past few days because I’ve been talking a lot about them in a writing master class I am doing. Other people might spend a long weekend down at the beach, I spend it – writing.

What, you might ask, did I expect to get out of a writing master class, now that I have a doctorate in creative writing under my belt?

As one woman said “I am doing this because I am a life long learner”. Indeed. Also, the simple act of being surrounded by writing peers at a similar level of expertise is galvanising. The quality of feedback is invigorating and challenging, the camaraderie as the social ice thaws is comforting, and hearing other experienced writers talking about their struggles is enlightening.

In fact, no matter how accomplished, it transpires that writers are all prone to the same self doubt and procrastination. Here are common comments during the coffee break –  “I am so lazy!”, or “I am a fraud!” or “I can’t do this!” and “what makes me think I can ever write anything good enough?”  This is what US psychologist David Rasch PhD – author of The Blocked Writer’s Book Of The Dead calls “the jerk in my head”.

All of the 12 people in the master class were talented, prolific, experienced, published and devoted to their craft. But one thing really, really resonated with everyone was the communal cry of “we just don’t get enough done!” and “I need to have better work habits!”

One  participant had the enviable lifestyle of all the time to write – no kids to mind, daily paid job to do, or elderly relatives to nurture. He had the money, the support and the space and no distractions. Unlike another writer of 10 published books who is also a full time primary school teacher and writes books in the school holidays, this man appeared to have a dream existence. Except he wasn’t writing. He was procrastinating.

 

I suggested some obstacles, boundaries or roadblocks –  sometimes having everything is actually limiting. A form of creative agoraphobia. Maybe that’s why writers procrastinate – because it focuses time when they have to really, really get something in. And that narrow window of opportunity then casts a beam of clarity over the problem at hand.

Or – maybe not. It just makes us stressed and irritable. I am no stranger to the all-nighter, probably because I take on many projects, work full time and have two children. But what I do know is that there are many ways to approach your writing, and you need to find the one that works best for you. How will you end up with a reasonable body of work? By putting the time in. The same could be said of having a reasonable body of course…you have to put in the work…not just think about it…

 

Here are some ideas canvassed in the master class: – which writer are you?

  • Binge writer: you starve yourself of writing and time, then hit the computer and pour out the words in a block of time, alienating yourself from the rest of the world.
  • Helicopter nibbler – you don’t have the time to write every day because of other commitments, but the weekend seems so far away…so you keep in touch by writing little notes to your work, making sure you maintain the love with your project.
  •  The five: two writing diet – you are a weekend writer only. The rest of the week you think you might write, but don’t. After all, You haven’t finished watching Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
  • The early morning writer – you start before the family gets up. By 8 pm, you can only concentrate on TV.
  • The late night writer – for night owls – you write when you have the children to bed. This is because you can’t even write a shopping list in the morning that makes sense.
  • The word count writer – you write 500 to 1000 words a day, whenever, no matter what. This adds up. You have a book finished in six months!
  • Once a week writer – you write only one hour a week on a Sunday – and make sure you write 2000 words in that session. See above!
  • Endless plotting writer – maybe it’s not JUST about the words – but the other complicated, moving parts of a novel – the plot, characters, the twists and turns, the set ups and payoffs…maybe you set aside a specific block of time each day or week – half and hour – to work on this AS WELL as a separate block of time for actual writing. You also have a book finished in six months, but are late paying bills and have no personal relationships. You are obsessed and driven – are you doing a doctorate?
  • Vomit draft writer – you don’t worry about the perfect draft first off – you write the entire “draft zero” or “vomit draft” and then have time for editing, and rewriting. People use the words fast paced, action packed and could do with a close edit for your work.
  • None of the above. You want to write but get nothing done. But your next holiday is planned and you have a table covered in books that could be the inspiration for your novel, if only you’d stop watching Game Of Thrones.

Think of your writing life like other aspects of your life that you need to do to remain a functional person – you need to eat, shop, clean, cook, take care of friendships and family, you need to read, plot, write and engage with the writing community in some way as a writer. Just as you should exercise regularly, you need to write regularly.

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No time for writing? Nonsense – you can fit even 10 minutes a day, can’t you? Save the big burst up for when you can carve out time, but just as there are many forms of eating (snacks, dinner out, leisurely brunch) so too are there many forms of writing. Just do it!

The trick is to find a pattern for yourself, and factor it in, every day, every week, week in and out. Remember the worst thing is starting, so some tricks, like retyping the last paragraph of your story when you start, or making sure you always finish some writing off so that it’s never a neat ending, and come back into that sentence, might work for you.

What ever you do – start. And put in – the time and effort. Nothing happens without it. Books, and doctorates alas, do not write themselves from your imagination and research without your physical input.

 

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Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, publishing the novel, Writing strategies

It’s not me, it’s you: falling out of love with your fictional character

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My dearest fictional character – we’ve been together for many years, and you’ve sat with me long into the night as we have tried to work it out. You’ve gone deep into the heart of academia with me, you’ve faced the Master of Creative Writing examiners – and passed, with flying colors – and I have good friends who will go into bat for you.

And I have loved and cared for you, it’s true. I made you from nothing but the figment of my imagination. I gave you flesh and blood and backstory. I fashioned your hair and clothes and gave you your name. You feel like you are part of me.

But recently, or actually, not so recently, things haven’t been the same between us. I’ve noticed your flaws. Those charming idiosyncrasies that at first were just slightly annoying, but have now started grating on me. Even though, it is true, I was responsible for everything about you, even the awful bits.

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But some of the things you’ve done, and let’s be honest, the people you’ve killed in my Gothic horror novel, have indicated that you are unbalanced. And people don’t necessarily like that.

There is no harder word to defend in fiction than ‘antagonist’. Except perhaps the words ‘female antihero’.

No one likes a woman who kills in fiction. They like her even less if she kills her lover’s wife. It’s true that even in the horror genre, people get very moralistic like that. Though I agree with you, the wife had it coming to her. She after all turned your lover’s life support off, didn’t she? And if that’s not motivation enough to propel you on your bloody journey of revenge, I don’t know what is.

And I thought refusing to say ‘till death do us part’ was romantic. Apparently not.  People just think you are unhinged.

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You see, Xanthe, I have a new set of people reading about you. And they don’t like you, not one little bit. One author was ready to throw you against a wall – a pretty strong reaction to a fictional character, I know. She said it out loud, to my face. “I just don’t like her.”

Others in my new writing workshop have started saying it as well. It began with a read through and a glass of wine. They called you objectionable. That hurt. To be told that the person you cared about – even if only fictional – was not quite up to scratch. Not worthy of me. Not only that, they didn’t even like the man you loved. I was trying to make him sympathetic, but I was told he was too perfect. They said he needed to be flawed, cheating man that he is – he needed to be real. Everyone likes the bad boy in books.

What’s that I hear you say? You think I am being unfaithful with my writer’s affections? Okay. So, I admit it. There’s someone else. That’s the truth. They are as intense as you, but less neurotic. And for some reason, even though he (yes, it’s a man this time) inhabits a world where he has sold his soul to the devil, and you still have yours, people prefer him.

How did that happen?

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I am the writer who created you both, and people prefer JD Howard to you, Xanthe. It’s just the way it is. They want me to leave you, toss you aside, and move in with him, so to speak.

In fact, when I presented the latest piece of writing at my workshop featuring you, Xanthe, this is what they said.

“Oh, we were hoping for more of Howard, after what we read last time. We loved Howard, he was ambiguous, morally objectionable, but interesting – well dressed, dark, mysterious, and we loved the way he tried to seduce that nurse in the first chapter…”

And you, my poor dear Xanthe, love of my heart, a woman I so painstakingly created throughout my Masters degree – they just thought you were crazy. They didn’t get you at all.

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So now, after all this time, I have decided to consign you to third person. Howard is going to take the prized first person protag place in my novel.

What can I say, Xanthe? It’s not me, it’s you. I think you are the reason my novel hasn’t found a publisher. Now, maybe I am being too harsh, that’s not totally the case, but in all relationship breakups, someone has to take the blame, so it might as well be you.

If I wanted to be really honest, I could tell you this – obviously in the course of the four years that I have pursued my doctorate in creative writing, I have grown stronger, leaner, meaner, better as a writer, and you, my dearest, just don’t cut it any more.

Yes, I know we go back a long way, and you are the first love of my MA. But now it is time to face the facts. We have grown apart. I have outgrown you, and it’s over. It really is.

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I could let you down gently, I suppose, tell you that I just need some space to think about things. But actually, I have told you those lies already. How many years now have I said to you that I am too busy to spend time with you? That I can’t pursue our endless redrafts any more because I have to work on other projects, or I have a conference to attend? I keep saying I’ll get back to you in due course, but it never happens, does it? You should have realized then there was another book taking my time and affections.

You should have realized my neglect was actually an indication of a deeper betrayal – that of lack of interest. But it hurts me to do this. To create another you. A better you. A you without the flaws. A you perfectly drawn, who will do what I want, when I want. The thing is, Xanthe. I am selfish. I want to get my novel published. And you are holding me back.

You see, Xanthe, now I have submitted that other novel as part of my doctorate, I am ready to come back to the MA novel, and I don’t like what I see anymore. I don’t like you, Xanthe.

So here we are now, with me about to commit the ultimate in writer’s divorce. I am going to move all our work together into an old draft folder, and start again.

That’s it. I have had enough. I have tried and tried, but it’s just not working. I have to be mature about this, and do the right thing by you – and by me – and call it quits. I can’t waste any more time with you. I can’t keep providing you with better dialogue, more complex motivations that still render you believable. I need to have time to write the book my book could be without you.

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Even though I spent years creating you, and rewriting you, it’s not working. You are not working. It’s over. I want to start afresh with someone else. Another character. A clean slate. Someone I can project my darkest fantasies upon. Someone who will do what I want and have the readers cheering.

Goodbye Xanthe. If this were a Stephen King novel, you’d stab me in my sleep for ending it this way. I know you – you are like that, aren’t you?

Just as well you are not real. Only a figment of my imagination.

Academic conferences, Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Doctoral companion species? The Creative Writing project and exegesis

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Just as I have spent the past four years exploring the hybrid in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries – so I realized that the actualized Creative Writing doctorate also existed outside the binaries. 

Throughout the exegesis I have come to realize the hybrid stands slightly outside the human, never properly human or animal, never allowed to fully participate in the human community – or the animal pack. Never human enough, never animal enough. Actually, that’s how I felt growing up – never Greek enough, never Australian enough. A hybrid.

Although they spend the days fighting, at least my cat and dog can play together as well. And the cat can always run away. Take one good swipe at the dog. Or both can retreat and bury their differences. Not so the human-animal hybrid in science fiction. There is nowhere to go.

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It’s the same with the Creative Writing doctorate. The novel and the exegesis have to get along, play nice, and find some common ground. I can hear myself getting increasingly frustrated, saying – “for goodness sake, the damn exegesis has to let me spend some time with the novel – enough already!” And still it demands! Doesn’t it realize it is a hybrid – unable to exist without its other half?

Yes, I am at that “I am so sick of it, I can’t read another word” stage of my research. I have even begun footnoting in my dreams – and worrying about whether I am getting the damn referencing system correct.

In my exegesis, I argue that the hybrid exists in both human and animal categories simultaneously, challenging but never destroying either category. The great fear for the human characters is that the animal within the hybrid will harm them. The good news is, this happens in my novel as well. Or it would. If I ever get time to do the final edit. And, as I have discovered this is the fear writers have when they start the Creative Writing doctorate.

A relatively new higher degree, this doctorate isn’t taken seriously by those who have decided that a/ writers should never undertake a higher degree, and b/  it isn’t like it’s a “real” doctorate anyway as it is “just writing”. Add the fact that I am doing mine on beings that don’t actually exist…well. You get the picture!

That actually fits with my research. By the 21st Century, in science fiction the hybrid’s danger is acknowledged to be its human side. As illustrated in this scene from the 2009 movie Splice, where the scientists examine scans of the newborn hybrid Dren and ponder her potential threat:

Elsa: Not all animals have predatory elements.

Clive: There’s the human element.

That brings me to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto. Here, Haraway argues that dogs are not about oneself. They are dogs – not a projection, nor the realization of an intention, not the telos of anything.  (The Companion Species Manifesto: Dog, People, and Significant Otherness. 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press – p 11).

This makes more sense to me now I actually have a dog. I small, joyful, mess creating, life enhancing puppy. Finally asleep in his basket at my desk. He likes to keep an eye on me long into the night.

A friend told me when I got the puppy that things I never expected to get destroyed would. I could batten down the hatches as much as I liked, but things would happen I couldn’t control.

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

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So, what’s that got to do with the Creative Writing doctorate?

Maybe sometimes we need to look at it for what it just is. Just a dog. Just a thing in its own right and not an end to anything. I think those of us in the thick of it know this, and are too caught up in it and too darn tired working on it to fight the popular opinion that challenges us as to why we are doing it. After all, no one asks why anyone does a doctorate in a science related subject, do they? But somehow, many people do not think it is valid to study – and write – fiction in higher education. But I didn’t start this doctorate to learn how to write – I can do that, thanks. I did it because I wasn’t about to do one in architecture, philosophy or bioethics. Writing is what I do, and that was the dog I was going to study, so to speak. I wanted to push that writing boundary as far as I could, challenge myself and stretch myself in my area. And I don’t feel I have to justify this.

I do argue, however, that many creative writers embarking on a doctorate in Creative Writing fear the “other half” of the work required. They imagine they are “either” a creative writer “or” a researcher, and often feel they do not have the academic language or research skills required to merge the two together. Even those in the media have queried whether this doctorate should be allowed to exist – much the same way that creation of scientific hybrids are debated. 

Will they be good for the community? Or destroy humanity as we know it? Yes – by that I mean both the Creative Writing doctorate, and scientific chimeras. And, while we are at it – fictional hybrids.

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The fear many writers have is that their academic research will harm them, make them less creative, and take away their spontaneity. This is one side of the hybrid dominating the other. Yet it is interesting that unlike, for instance, the skills needed to be a professional tennis player that are seen to need coaching and training, writing is viewed as a gift from God – (quite mythological) a skill that can’t be taught. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it. But those in higher degrees in creative writing would argue otherwise.

The research, while pulling you away from the creative, deepens your involvement with it. The images in this blog were taken from a tapestry at the Ashmolean Museum last year when I was in Oxford to take part in two conferences related to my doctorate. I think they perfectly illustrate the doctoral battle for creative writers – one part trying to dominate the other, the exegesis trumping the novel, and vice versa. Yet while I went to Oxford to present my academic research, it caused me to explore new areas in my creative project. The impact of that trip is still resonating in my work, in the exegesis and the novel and other interesting ways. I am going back in September 2013, to present the final chapter of my exegesis, on the erotic nature of the hybrid at the Exploring The Erotic conference.   I see this as an invaluable experience. Getting feedback on your ideas and research from your peers – indeed defending your ideas and research to them – pushes forward your work and gets you used to taking your work into the public sphere. 

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My creative project came into being as a hybrid. It was based on a short story I started writing several years ago at a bioethics conference in Queensland, where I was presenting a paper for my MA in Creative Writing. I was listening to a paper about the perils of xeno transplantation – the use of animal parts in humans – when the voice of my protagonist Ariadne came to me. It was one of those creative moments when you realize that something has clicked. As a science fiction/crime writer – itself a hybrid genre, I felt a deep resonance with the idea of xeno transplantation and hybridity.

The short story that resulted was Xenos, a “hard boiled” speculative crime thriller (this is itself a hybrid of cross disciplinary genre) that won the Dorothy Porter Innovation Prize in the 2007 Sisters In Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards and has become a middle chapter of my doctoral creative project. The short story has been published in Scarlet Stiletto – The Second Cut, available in ebook.

So there you have it – my doctoral creative project sprung to life like a mythological character, plucked from the centre of my Masters research, a hybrid from the start. A direct result of my academic research. Which part of the hybrid dominated?

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

Academic Study, creative writing, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Writing Boot Camp with PD Martin

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Nothing happens as a writer unless you are actively writing. Australian crime author PD Martin, whose first five crime novels have been published in 13 countries, extols the virtues of writing 10,000 words a day.

She teaches intensive writing workshops around the country providing theoretical and practical tips to writers to improve their skills.

While Seinfeld might have created a 365 day wall calendar to jump start his own literary output, PD Martin regularly takes up the 10K a Day challenge.

It’s a good lesson for those struggling with their doctoral writing.

The 10 K a Day is the writer’s equivalent to Boot Camp; the mental version of sickening repetitive pushups and laps around the oval pulling a car tyre. Forget washboard abs – you’ll come away, however, with a novel in a very short amount of time. Or, indeed, a good chunk of your thesis written.

PD Martin has just emerged from an intensive year of moving into ebooks, with five new releases under her belt, including true crime, two young adult novels writing as Pippa Dee, for which she has a separate website, and Hell’s Fury  the first book in a new series.

It’s tempting to imagine she has all the time in the world to write, while doctoral students have to make do with scraps left around research, teaching and paid work.

The Australian author, however, speaks from experience when she talks about time management.

“When I was writing the first two Sophie Anderson books, I was working three days a week with reasonable, guaranteed pay and the other two days I dedicated to my creative writing,” she said.

“I made sure that I kept 9 am to 6 pm office hours with a 40 minute lunch break, and also worked five hours on Saturdays.”

With this disciplined regime, PD Martin finished a novel in six to 12 months “writing to a deadline, bum on seat.” However, after she became a full-time mum, her writing time dwindled dramatically. Around this time, she heard of the 10k day and with a deadline looming she gave it a whirl. She was amazed by the results.

The 10 K a Day Rules

The 10 K a Day effort is achieved in four blocks of two hour writing bursts with a 10-15 minute break in between each two-hour block.

PD Martin explained the rules – don’t stop to research, turn off the grammar and spell checking programs and don’t re-read a single word that you write.

“This is the most important part. When you stop and re-read what you’ve just written, you’re stopping your writing flow and listening to your critical brain,” she said.

“With the 10 K a Day program, you make a commitment to stream of consciousness writing, and understand that the editing process is where the critical aspect comes in.

“This approach is especially good for dialogue and for progressing the plot. Even if you only stick to the regime for one 10k day a one month in addition to your normal writing regime, it makes finishing a novel achievable in a short amount of time.”

It is interesting to hear PD Martin speak about a “writing regime” as this is what separates serious writers from those who dabble. Treating writing as a job means daily commitment.

Especially if you have a doctoral deadline, when you need to reach that word count.

“It’s so easy to find excuses not to write,” PD Martin says. “You think, oh, I need to work on the plot, I need more research. While these things are essential, it’s also important not to use them as a barrier to actually finishing that novel.”

Another general writing tip from PD Martin was about when to finish work for the day/session.

“Never finish your writing session at the end of a scene/chapter. Even if you only write one paragraph of the next scene/chapter, make sure you have something to go on with the next day. That way you’ll be less likely to have writer’s block.”

Read about how PD Martin creates and promotes her brand as a writer