inspiration, life, On writing, Personal

12 things I learned about writing from cheering on a school Netball Team

When I first stood sideline at a netball game I had no idea that I’d end up learning so much about how to approach life and writing.

The last two years I’ve had the chance to go on tournament with my school’s premier netball team as a chaperone/teacher in charge. I’m not a coach, I’ve never even played 😬 I’m the van driver and attendant and school rep and cheerleader.

I’ve learned so much watching the girls and listening to the amazing coach, Rachel Rasmussen. These lessons are life lessons, but being me I connect them most with writing. I’ve listed 12 of them below so we can all benefit from the wisdom gleaned on the sidelines. 

When your head gets all messy that’s when you need to connect with someone.

We’ve all had moments when our own minds become our worst enemy. Confusion and self-doubt muddle our thinking and ability to perform well. Those are the moments when you need to make a connection with a buddy–let them set you straight or support you out of the mess. I do this all the time with my writing. When things are spiralling and I can’t see the trees for the self-doubt, I don’t so much slide as crash into my writing friends’ DMs and let them help me.

When the girls felt like they were flat in their play, the coach told them to buddy up with someone who would become their hype partner. We know what a difference it makes when you have someone in your corner telling you that you’re amazing and you got this.

Back yourself

I’ve learned a few things about netball over the last couple of years but I’m definitely no expert. But what I CAN tell, every time I watch the girls play, is the exact moment when they stop believing. When they stop backing themselves. Every single time that happens it’s a ripple effect. They stop playing well, they pull back, they don’t make the shot. That lack of belief is then reinforced by their actions so they continue to sink downwards in an awful spiral that many of us will be only too sadly familiar with.

The same applies for writing. And, indeed, for life. We need to back ourselves. There are enough obstacles throwing themselves in our path as it is, we can’t afford to be our own obstacle. And just as the cycle of lack of belief leads to reinforcing the idea that we are crap, so backing ourselves can lead to a cycle of positive reinforcement that yes, we’re getting there. I told the girls I could see when they back themselves because then they shine.

We have to back ourselves.

You can’t play at 100% if you haven’t practiced at 100%

If we write like we mean it, if we live with purpose, then the finished product will show that. We have to show up for the trainings. For the practice runs. For the moments when it isn’t going anywhere but we still learn something from it.

And we have to show up with commitment.

Sure, just deciding to commit and putting in a whole assed effort doesn’t mean it will always work out, but it will be better than if you didn’t. And that’s the point.

Don’t say ‘I played bad’. You’re not setting out to play badly. What specifically did you do or not do that you want to and can improve on.

This one hit me hard.

So often we diss ourselves. “This draft is trash”, “I’m so rubbish at this“. That kind of negative self talk is NOT helpful. Yeah, sometimes we need that honest look at ourselves but wallowing in generalised “I’m so crap” doesn’t do anything except a) reinforce that you are not succeeding and b) make you feel terrible. Targeting specific things you tried but that didn’t work, or recognising what you didn’t do that you should have, gives you a plan to go forward. It gives you recognition of what you tried–and that’s important. Acknowledging that we didn’t set out to play badly/write badly/be disorganised, means we can high five ourselves for our efforts while making plans for improvement.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

The power of reflection

After each game, the coach gets the team to think and discuss what their goal going in was, did they succeed, how did they play, how did the team do. It’s a round robin which encourages reflection and focus.

Reflecting on what we have done, what we hoped and still hope to do, and how we feel about it, is a great life skill. Reflection is a key aspect of teaching – why did that lesson work? how could I have tried more to get that one student to engage. And I think it’s important that as writers we reflect as well. (More on living a reflective life here).

Looking past the mess to the clean pass

I loved this. This was on court, players looking past the mess and hustle of the defence and attack and seeing the clean pass. It’s SO easy to get stuck on the mess that’s in front of us. The day to day mess of life, of thoughts, self imposed deadlines and plans shifting. Of Covid…

Sometimes we need to look past all the mess to the clean pass – to see a different path or a new option.

And then make the pass.

(more on clearing mental space here)

Encouragement and kindness but honesty overall.

One of the things I most love about watching Rachel coach the team is her manner with the girls. When they’re on the court she alternates between enouragement and praise and “get on the ball! that was our ball! get it back! what are you doing??”. When they come off in between quarters she’s so encouraging. She doesn’t shy away from real talk, fierce talk, after a game or in trainings, but when a player comes off stressed and tired, she says ‘hey that was good, you played that defense well, just need to make sure you keep your feet moving”. The girls respond so well to it because they know that it’s honest – the good and the bad – but they feel supported and like their efforts are acknowledged.

Honesty is so important. We can’t improve without honest critique. Fierceness can be appreciated. This is a gif I use often for friends who are needing a push to get writing instead of doomscrolling Twitter:

But that honesty and fierce encouragement has to be tempered with support and kindness. We all know it’s tough, and knowing someone is on your side makes all the difference.

Grinding it out. Yes it gets tough but you can do it. 

One of the last games of the tournament was so hard. It’s been a strange year with Covid 19 and tournaments cancelled and no training. They had about 5 games this season before we went back into lockdown. Luckily, being in New Zealand, we were back out of lockdown pretty soon and cases under enough control to play again. But their game fitness suffered. That didn’t matter – the girls left it all on the court. One player was almost in tears as they played so hard and still didn’t get those goals. But they didn’t give up. They dug deep and kept going.

Writing is hard. Publishing is harder. We got to grind it out. Keep going. Keep pushing. Leave it all on the page.

When it’s hardest is when we have to dig deep, remember why we’re doing it, and keep at it.

It’s okay to lose when you’ve played your hardest.

Our coach is intensely competitive. I’ve seen her on the sideline fully stressed and she hates losing. But, she always says to the team – “I don’t mind the loss when it’s a good hard game.”

Success is not guaranteed just because we work hard. But as my son said to me once when he was about 7: “You shouldn’t be stressed, you should be proud of yourself for working so hard.”

Publishing, life in general actually, is an industry where luck and timing is huge. Quality and skill and hard work are important, but if your work doesn’t resonate with the right people at the right time, it doesn’t matter how many hours you spent revising or learning your craft or polishing the manuscript.

But that’s a good loss. It still hurts (let’s be real it always will) but we can lay it to rest being proud that we did EVERYTHING we could.

I felt that way about my marriage ending to be honest. I wanted to be able to look my kids in the eyes and say that I had tried everything to make it work, to keep our family together. And I feel satisfied that I did. It still hurt, hugely, but I did what I could until I couldn’t.

Acknowledge and celebrate strengths and wins as well as working to improve weaknesses. 

It took me about 16 months to put “Award Winning Writer” in my Twitter bio and I still feel uncomfortable about it. Maybe that’s a kiwi thing – feels too much like bragging. But I think it’s because I know how much more I want to improve and benchmarks I’ve set myself that I haven’t reached yet.

It’s so easy for us to focus on the negative. On the losses, the rejections. But that doesn’t help us emotionally and it isn’t realistic either. There’s so much more to us than our weaknesses or our ‘failures’.

Knowing our strengths means we can play to them.

It’s not personal.

This is a big one.

Playing competitively sometimes you’re left on the bench the whole game, or you’re pulled off and someone else is sent on. It isn’t personal. it’s the coach figuring out what the best play is for that game.

We talk about being rejected as an author but actually it’s a pass. A pass on that project. It isn’t personal. It isn’t a reflection of your worth as a person. It’s just that it isn’t quite right for that person at that time. It isn’t the best play for them.

What did you enjoy?

When the coach asked the girls this after our final game, an intense game we lost by three points, it really struck me. Yes there were tough moments and the outcome wasn’t what they wanted, but what moments did they enjoy?

This is like my happy jar approach, or a gratitude journal. It’s the recognition that there are good and fun things in life even when it’s hard.

There are times when writing can feel a bit like drudgery. But there are still moments we can enjoy. Maybe we enjoyed writing that paragraph when that one perfectly matched song came on the playlist. Maybe a bit of dialogue made us cackle. Maybe we feel proud of that line of description.

Sometimes we forget why we started writing in the first place – because it’s fun and we like it.

I think enjoyment can occasionally get lost once we start taking it seriously and want to be published. At times, the thought of ‘is this marketable? will anyone want it?” sucks all the enjoyment out of it.

I’m primarily a discovery writer. If I plot too much I don’t enjoy the story as much anymore. For a while, I felt I had to make myself outline and plot and structure my writing a certain way – but that’s not really how I write. I have the most fun when I jump around between scenes and jot small things down and find things out as I write.

My new goal is to rediscover my enjoyment and fun, to record what I enjoyed after each writing session.

I hope you find these insights as helpful as I have!

inspiration, motivation, On writing, Personal

A tale of persistence and joy.

shutterstock_713523253 (1)

Persistence. Ugh. Sometimes it’s TOO HARD. In fact, it’s often always hard because if it was easy we wouldn’t call it persistence, we’d call it something else, like, idk, ENJOYMENT.

 

But it’s necessary.

 

And so very rewarding.

 

If you don’t trust me, trust Cap.

Cap do this all day

 

You may know if you saw my post from earlier this year that 2018 was a difficult year, to put it mildly. Poor health was followed by a bad episode of depression and struggles with anxiety. Although depression affected pretty much every area of my life there was one bit it targeted with particular cruelty – my writing.

 

2018 was going to be the year I really took action to make my writing dreams a reality. I paid more attention to craft, I not only finished a book but REVISED it (a fate I’d previously circumvented because ugh), and I engaged in the writing community on Twitter.

 

So it seemed particularly unfair that it also became the year that I would weep for hours in front of my computer because I believed deep, deep down that everything I wrote was trash. Not the jokey ‘here, have my garbage fire of a draft! lol!’ but a genuine deep belief that this thing I wanted more than I’ve wanted anything for a really, really long time, was out of reach because I simply wasn’t good enough. That I was, and would remain, a failure because of my own incompetence.

 

I was also weeping in the shower because I’d forgotten to bring a dry towel into the bathroom, to be fair, but the usual self-doubt and cycle of rejection that comes with writing and putting your work out there was amplified a MILLION-fold by the depression. I couldn’t see any of the positive comments from beta readers, only the critical ones. And I mean that almost literally – they became nearly invisible. I know this because once I was well I went back and reread some comments and SAW all these amazing positive things I hadn’t seen before.

 

HOWEVER! 2018 was also the year that I finished revisions, queried, got full requests, dealt with rejections, queried again, and again, sent to competitions, wrote another book, started writing three other books, came 12th in a writing competition and was awarded a Judge’s Favorite.

 

For so much of 2018, I was on the verge of quitting.

 

I was going to give my book away as a PDF to people who were silly enough to want to read it.

 

I was going to stop querying.

 

I was going to stop calling myself a writer.

 

But I didn’t.

 

Even in the worst moments there was a little corner of my soul that wouldn’t give up

I kept pushing ‘send’ on the queries, even though my heart raced with anxiety every time.

 

I queried that manuscript 84 times. I moved on to another one. And another one.

 

I would love to tell you how I did it. But I don’t really know. I know I didn’t do it alone. My writing friends had my back the whole way through – they let me freak out and panic in the DMs, encouraged me, lifted me up, cheered me on.

 

Treatment helped a TON.

 

But sadly there’s still no handy medicine for self-doubt and that rears its ugly little head ALL the TIME.

 

Ultimately, I did it because I kept going. I persisted (see, I told you it was necessary). Even when I loathed every word I put on the paper, I kept writing. I kept revising.

 

And it does pay off.

 

This year I entered the same manuscript I spent so much time hating last year into the Wisconsin Romance Writers of America Fabulous Five Contest.

 

It won its category.

giphy (1)

Talk about validation!

 

It’s had more full requests.

 

My son said after looking at my query spreadsheet and I’d explained all the red was rejections and the scattered green was the requests: “Wow. If you’d let all the red stop you, you’d never have got to the green!”

 

So simple, so true, and yes, so hard.

 

But so worth it.

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For some reason the heavy wooden rectangle that came in the mail today gave more weight to my achievement.

 

It made it more real.

 

I’ve propped it up next to my computer, near my index cards shouting positive and encouraging things, reminders like RUN YOUR RACE.

 

Because persistence is draining, we need the reminders of the good things on the journey.

 

It’s very much a journey – I’m still waking up to rejections from agents, still don’t have that publishing deal – but it’s a journey worth taking.

 

And I know I can do it.

On writing

An approach to revising – how ‘placeholders’ helped me not freak out

IMG_5845Revisions are tough. I mean, drafting is hard too, but you get to ignore the bad bits and the lumpy plot and the endlessly repeating ‘looked’, because everyone tells you to “Just get it out! words on a page! You can edit a bad page you can’t edit a blank one!”. You can’t escape this in revisions.

 

I’ve been carrying out a lot of revisions lately and am super happy to have completed the third draft of my Dust Bound fantasy novel. (SUCH a relief). When I first started the revision process I found it very overwhelming and difficult to get a handle on. I could do a couple of tweaks, sure, but I found really improving it a harder thing to figure out. I didn’t know where to start.

 

Sandcastle from Sand Shannon Hale Quote

This advice about sand to sandcastles is often given, and during my drafting stage it was really reassuring. But not for the revisions.  I had no idea how to get from vast quantities of sand, some pristine, some with bits of cat wee, some left best unmentioned, to glorious turrets of a mighty sandcastle.

 

Then I had an epiphany.

 

I didn’t have a vast sprawling sandpit with nothing on it. My manuscript wasn’t a virgin beach. There were lines, small heaps, markings in the sand. Foundations. Placeholders. These are the statements that are usually ‘tell’ statements. “They walked through the lush fields.” It’s a sentence that doesn’t do a lot. It’s a placeholder. It helps tell the writer the story so we can go back and flesh it out.

 

I realised this was my process.

Find the StoryTell the StoryShow the Story

 

This made the whole thing far less overwhelming. I wasn’t starting from scratch. I wasn’t trying to get from finding to showing, or from sandpit to sandcastle. I was moving slowly in stages, each point moving me that bit further on.

The way to get from tell the story to show the story, for me, was to identify the placeholders and focus on developing them.

 

An example is probably best to demonstrate what I mean:

 

This is the first draft:

 

They noticed the quiet hum of the nomad camp the closer they got. It wasn’t silent, but it wasn’t just the dust that muffled the noise. It had the feel of people who knew exactly how loud they could be before they started drawing the attention of the boogieman in the dark.

Around a small fire, which was responsible for the glow, sat 15-20 people. A rigged cloth stretched high over the flames to catch the dust, allowing the fire to smoulder without being damped.  There were no old people and no children around the fire. That didn’t mean there were none. Covered carts ringed the clearing and it was through two of them that they walked, weapons down but out.

 

This is full of placeholders. Key signal words – ‘noticed’, ‘wasn’t’, ‘was’, ‘it had’, “there were”, “they walked”.

 

Focusing in on these words and statements, recognising that they provided a foundation for my sandcastle, enabled me to develop them into something more immersive:

 

Flickering light turned into the steady glow of a small fire. Thin trees opened to a clearing ringed by covered carts standing guard against the outside world. The quiet hum of people, all too aware of the threat of black tipped wings in the dark, grew louder with every step. Sweaty palm slipping on her knife handle, she edged closer to Ryder. Flames threw shadows shifting over the Dust, sending shivers crawling over her skin.

The carts loomed on either side of them as they walked a pathway into the centre, whispers trickling out from frayed canvas covers. A warm glow danced over the people gathered around the fire, eyes fixed on the newcomers. Rigged cloth stretched high over the flames to catch the Dust, allowing the fire to smoulder without suffocating under grey powder. No children playing, no old people talking. An expectant hush spread through the clearing

 

The biggest thing for me with my placeholder epiphany was a liberating acknowledgement that I didn’t have to have it right the first time. That it was a process. It helped me feel less overwhelmed and gave me a strategy for my revisions.

 

What are your best revising/editing tips? Share in the comments below!

On writing, Personal

Of drawings and ‘I can’ts’ and maybe I could haves.

I’ve been trawling through old writings I did when I was 14, inspired by a #WriteFightGifClub post on Twitter. I found some real doozies, but I also found some old sketches I made when I was convinced I would be an author someday.

 

Somewhere along the way I lost both the belief that I would be a writer, and the belief that I could draw.

 

I’ve reconnected with my writing soul, but my drawing soul is still very much under the debris of adult skepticism.

 

When you’re a child, you don’t question your ability to create. You just do it. I love watching kids draw and then be overtly and happily proud of the result. It broke my heart when my son stopped drawing because what was on the page didn’t match what was in his head because the same thing happened to me.

 

So these are to remind me that maybe, like the melodramatic and half baked pieces of writing that I unearthed and smiled over, these too are a part of my creative side that could be fostered and dusted off and maybe, just maybe, I can believe again.

 

old sketch commander
This was titled Commander Shereen. I can’t remember what story she was attached to.

 

Old sketch lying down

I was quite influenced by Larry Elmore’s drawings.

 

Old sketch wise warrior

This ‘wise warrior’ kind of looks like my dad.

 

old sketch portrait

I’ve never been great with portraits. They all look the same.

 

old sketch punk witch

This is a very 80s looking witch i believe.

 

old sketch princess

and my princess about to rescue herself.

 

I had fun looking at these old pictures and wondering about the girl I had been, who believed so strongly that she could write, and draw, and do well at both.

 

I think I’m going to try and recapture that.

 

How about you? what did you love doing when you were young that you just stopped doing?

life, On writing

The little moments of life that sneak into your writing. Like ninjas. But nicer.

writing in cafeThere’s one of those little sayings ‘You know you’re a writer when….’  And sometimes that feels exclusionary, like “Well, I don’t always look up murder sites in crowded cafes but I think I’m still a real writer Susan”, but I think everyone who writes ends up putting parts of their daily life into their work. You can’t help it sometimes. Those little moments or feelings sneak into your creative mind like friendly ninjas and go “Oh hey! have you seen me? I’d look pretty good in your WIP don’t you think?”.  And they do say to write what you know, so…

 

A little while ago I was running late for work. Traffic was horrendous. I had dropped my son off to his Granny after a long commute and was hoping I’d at least get to school before the first class. I drove down the side road and turned into the main road only just slowing, not stopping completely at the stop sign. Habit I think – mostly because there was never anyone there. That day there was a cop on a motorbike. The red and blue lights flashed, the siren went, and with a sinking feeling in my stomach I pulled over. Continue reading “The little moments of life that sneak into your writing. Like ninjas. But nicer.”