An Australian author living in Norway

Author: Zoë (Page 2 of 7)


Last weekend, two of my best friends (also writers) and I went up to a cabin in the ski resort town of Hemsedal, about three hours north of Oslo for a mini-writing retreat and jentetur (girls’ weekend). I had a plan to finish revising one of my novels, Audrey had some school work to do before heading off to a “real” writing retreat in the States the next week, and Chelsea just needed some inspiration to get started again.

Chris had generously offered to drive us up there, and his ears were likely throbbing by the time we arrived due to the incessant chattering and laughter that made the four hour journey (we stopped for lunch and grocery shopping) seem so much shorter. We talked about everything from inadvertent climbing expeditions to a nine-year-old boy’s fascination with googling pictures of butts.

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The End . . . for now

It’s done. The draft of Belladonna is finished and in the hands of its first beta-reader. Luckily for me, I get to share it with one of the talented writers I met earlier this year at the Djerassi Writers’ Residence. Susan was my first choice of beta reader not only because she gave meaningful and thoughtful critiques on the piece I took to the workshop there, but because we had discussed Belladonna on a hike around the property, and that talk got me over a huge hurdle I’d been struggling with for months prior. Needless to say, I was both relieved and happy when she agreed to read it.

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Sabine: Creating a Monster

My current work in progress is one I’ve been struggling with for almost two years. Given that the first two books took a collective thirteen months and the third only two months, this has been a source of constant frustration for me. However, I am nearing the end now, with almost 70,000 words down (and a rough target of 90,000 to finish this draft) I begin to see why it has been so tough.

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Uncomfortable truths

In the flurry of stress and activity that has been the pulling together of the second Oslo Writers’ League anthology, I almost forgot to contribute a piece myself. In the end, I ran so short on time I had to dig through my short story stock and find something already written, then repurpose it. In this case, where the themes were “Identity” and “Crossroads”, I decided the best fit was a non-fiction piece I wrote under pressure from a former colleague who was fascinated by my discomfort with all things Australian. Being homeless—in the sense of never having really felt “at home” anywhere—is a sensitive subject for me, and writing the piece was both unsettling and revealing. Even when it was complete, I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t very well submit it to Australian journals, not when, to my mind at least, it was unpatriotic to the point of being insulting. But would foreign journals understand it? Or, more importantly, care what it was saying? I doubted it (as I often doubt myself—it’s a writer’s prerogative). So I put it away and tried not to think about it.

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My Writing Process

My participation in the My Writing Process Blog Tour is thanks to Djerassi YA Workshop pal, Susan Crispell, who writes magical realism for both young adults and the adult market. Her book, Love and Cupcakes came out in January this year from Swoon Romance, and I had the pleasure of reading and critiquing the opening her very recently completed new YA novel, How to Take a Life. I loved what I read of her work, and am sure the new book is destined for big things. I also have to thank Susan for tagging me in this tour, because my blog has been sadly neglected since my return from Djerassi, and it’s high time I got back to it.

This particular blog tour is a really good way to find out about new authors and their books; you can follow the blog tour on Twitter via the #mywritingprocess hashtag.

And now for my answers to the questions… 

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Life After Djerassi

It’s been almost a week since I left the soft, rolling hills of northern California and returned to a fresh sprinkling of damp snow in a Norway finally graced with an acceptable number of daylight hours. I should feel relaxed, inspired, happy, and ready to tackle all the problems I found ways to solve while I was away. And I did find solutions…but I found something else, too, something I never expected. And it has broken me, just a little bit.

Now, before I get all soul-barey, let me preface by saying I’m not an outwardly emotional person. And living for eight years in a country filled with stoics has only taught me to further fortify the walls I build around myself. But in the course of seven short days, like water seeping through cracks I didn’t even know were there, the spirit of artistic peace and freedom that takes hold at Djerassi crept into me and changed me forever.

Djerassi Artists' Residence

Melodramatic? Maybe. True? Definitely. I’ve read it’s normal to feel a sense of loss after a retreat, but the usual residency period is four times as long as the one from which I’ve just returned. The difference, perhaps, is in the company of the people I spent that week with—people I will never forget. These eleven women, all writers of middle grade and young adult fiction, were strangers to me at the beginning of the week—all I knew of them was in their writing, and that might even have been enough; it was strong, beautiful, intimidating, inspiring…I already admired their talent. Then I met the women themselves. Individually, they were friendly, funny, quirky…all good things, but as a group, they formed that soft, secure place so rare in a brand new critique group; amongst these women, I felt immediately confident there would be no moment of attack, no nasty revelation that the writing I feared was terrible was, indeed, terrible. Yet, there was no dishonesty, no saccharin platitudes, only honest, thoughtful critique that came from a place of genuine enthusiasm for the work and what it took to produce it. This is rare and valuable to a writer at the best of times, but when these people are writing in your own genre, and are at various points along the same journey, the immediate kinship makes them nothing short of family.

An Open Letter to Grammar Nazis

Dear Pedants,

(Hey, everyone’s writing open letters these days, why not me, right?)

When I became a freelance editor, I worried that I’d become one of those insufferable pedants, or “Grammar Nazis” as they are affectionately known, who cannot stop themselves from picking on everyone’s mistakes, no matter how tiny or how accidental. Admittedly, I was already a serial-corrector—pretty much from the day I learned to speak, yeah, one of those kids—so I figured as soon as I started deliberately focusing on picking out errors in people’s work, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from finding abhorrent grammatical mistakes everywhere, and worse, correcting them whether people wanted me to or not.

However, I have found that the opposite has become true, and thank goodness. It’s not to say that horrific misuse of language doesn’t still grate with me—of course it does—but as a professional editor, I’ve learned to adapt myself to that beautiful thing writers use to make the language their own: style. Sometimes this means that a semicolon does not, in fact, join two independent but related sentences. Yes, I can hear your horrified gasps from here, but if I were to get out my little red pen and make the page bleed every single time I spotted a technical misuse simply because it was “incorrect”, I would be stripping the writer of their voice, and that is the biggest no-no in the editing profession, bar none. In my opinion, at least.

What I think makes a good editor, and it is something I strive for in every project I work on, is someone who recognises what makes the writer’s voice unique, and works hard both to preserve and enhance it. Sometimes this means cutting back, much like pruning a rose bush will bring forth bigger, more beautiful flowers; sometimes it means encouraging further exploration of a character or story arc; sometimes it means helping a writer to find, and refine, their voice. And sometimes it means ignoring a grammatical niggle because the piece would lose something were it to be corrected: in these cases, the misuse makes the voice.

However, editing a manuscript for publication is a far cry from reading blog posts, Facebook statuses, tweets, and other informal pieces of writing. It was in this arena I worried the most about keeping my big fat keyboard quiet. And I can’t pretend I don’t cringe a little when I see “your beautiful” or “Look! The kittys eating it’s food!”, but do I struggle to stop myself from posting an unsolicited corrective comment? No. Not anymore. I let it be. Why? Because everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. And Muphry’s Law is sure to come back and bite you when you’re snarky comment has a mistake in it. (See what I did there?)

Whether we like it or not, language changes, develops, incorporates new words (and new usage of old words), and whether or not you want words like “transition” to be used as verbs, or “literally” to mean “figuratively”, there’s nothing you can do to stop the evolution of language. So why not embrace it? Use it, add your voice to the cacophony, no matter how discordant you find it at first, and make it your own. Be bold, be brave, and deny the urge to be a pompous jackass. You will never be happy as long as you are trying to correct others, because all anyone sees is your effort to stifle their voice and look smart (when what you actually look like is a douchebag), and that’s not going to make them change their ways.


The first draft of book four in The Eidolon Cycle is complete at just over one hundred and ten thousand words, written over the course of sixty-four days, and boy are my arms tired. No, wait, wrong punchline. But seriously, what a ride! Averaging 1,700 words a day over two months was nothing short of a marathon for me, and the result is the firstest first draft I’ve ever written. I usually edit quite a lot as I go along, resulting in my first draft being something close to a second-to-final draft, but this thing is a beast.

I’ve now begun the editing process, and while my fears that it would be an incoherent mess were somewhat unfounded, this is honestly the sloppiest writing I’ve ever done. Forgive the horrid analogy, but it’s like trying to make a meal out of a pile of vomit. Not that the book is as gross as vomit, but more that it poured out of me in a constant stream, without… okay, I’m going to change tack, because this is just icky.

Anyway, the book I once worried wouldn’t have enough content to fill a full-length novel has become the longest I’ve ever written, and although editing is usually a process of cutting, I’m finding things that need adding as often, or more often, than I can afford to take bits away. As usual, the scenery needed some painting, but it’s also a process of fleshing out ideas that came to me in the heat of the writing moment. There are plot holes all over this thing, some big enough to poke my face through and take a picture.

Luckily, this is the project I’m taking with me to the Djerassi retreat next month, and now that I’ve seen the list of attendees, I’m not only horribly intimidated, I’m also confident I will get some useful, meaningful feedback. I just have to hope they don’t laugh me off the ranch. I get to have the group read and critique the first 25 pages of the novel, then I have a private session with YA legend, Nova Ren Suma, during which we’ll discuss another fifty pages. The question is, which fifty? This book, unlike the others in the series, is divided into two sections, one where the main character, Hannah, is fifteen years old, the second when she’s eighteen. I’m tempted to look at the second part so we can talk about continuity and consistency, but I’m still undecided.

I will also have several hours each day to work on a writing project of my choosing, so I hope to dive back into book three, Bella Donna, which I put on hold in order to write Primrose for NaNoWriMo. Interestingly, the two books are quite tightly intertwined, so I think finishing Bella Donna will be much easier than it was before. At least I hope so. If I do manage to get it finished by the end of March, that will be the entire four-part series done within two years, which makes me very happy indeed.

NaNo taught me…

November is over, the Christmas decorations are going up, and the sun is going down earlier and earlier in the day here in Norway. But, for the first time since I moved here almost eight years ago, I wasn’t as focused on the light (and lack of it) this year, I was focused on a goal, a daily word count target, and on winning NaNoWriMo in my first attempt. If you’re following me on Twitter, or my author page on Facebook, you will have seen that I not only hit the goal of 50,000 words nine days early, but that by the end of the month I had written close to 71,000 words. I find those two facts astounding enough, but what has surprised me the most is what I learned from what I originally thought of as a gimmicky type of thing that no real writers take very seriously.

When I started seriously working on Amaranth back in 2011, I dedicated one day a week to writing, and I would write the entire day, then let the ideas sink in over the following week so I’d know exactly where to start when I sat down in front of the screen again. That was one of the things that made me the most nervous about NaNo: there was no time to let ideas settle! What if I dried up every time I sat down to write? Or what if I wrote crap just to meet the word count target, only to discover I was running my story off in a ditch? This is why I decided to write my fourth Eidolon novel for NaNo, rather than the book I’ve been planning to write when the series is over. I knew The Eidolon Cycle would be fine with or without this fourth book, and if it turned out to be terrible, it wouldn’t hurt the series to simply dump it. The other book is one I’ve been planning for years and didn’t want to risk not doing it properly.

However, as it turned out my fears were groundless. There was never a day when I sat down with nothing to write, and although I only needed to write around 1700 words a day to meet the 50k goal, most days I ended up with between two and three thousand words. I only missed one day, and that was a Sunday where I spent all day with my daughter, then all evening working on a book release. The zero on my calendar is still mocking me, despite the fact that I got down a mammoth 4300 words the following day to make up for it—but that’s just me; I can’t stand to have broken the chain. But what kept me in fresh material was the idea suggested by my motivational NaNo writer friend, Audrey, who quoted Hemingway as having said he never drained the well. In other words, I left myself an idea or two to pick up the thread of the following day. And the more I wrote, the more I could see these characters and their world, and the more I knew what they were going to do or say next. So that gave me:

Lesson number one: Creativity is a muscle. The more you use it, the more it gives you to work with.

BUT! Back when I was writing once a week, I would usually finish up the day with three to four thousand words, and I never stopped writing until I had completed the chapter I was working on. It felt nice and neat to complete a chapter each writing session, and it made the overall structure of the novel pretty clean, meaning there wasn’t a lot of major rearranging to do when editing time came. During NaNo, I couldn’t afford to spend the entire day writing, and if I was to follow lesson number one above, I couldn’t use up all my ideas or I’d risk writer’s block the next day. With that in mind, I had to do something which was (to me) pretty drastic: I had to forget about chapters and neat little literary packages, and just write scenes. And sometimes [GASP!] leave them unfinished. That was hard.

Lesson number two: A first draft is allowed to be messy, and should be about the story, not about neat chapter packages.

I have said before that one of my main issues when I write is that I forget to paint the scenery. I write what my characters are saying, thinking, feeling and doing, often forgetting to paint an adequate picture of where and when they’re doing all these things. During NaNo, I embraced this about myself, and really let myself go into full first draft mode. Get the story out, put the detail in later. This proved to be a strangely valuable lesson; not only could I allow myself to write the way I naturally write, but it means that when I come back during editing to describe the sights, sounds and smells my character is experiencing, I will know her so well that it will be much easier to do it in her voice.

Lesson number three: Set free your natural drafting instincts; everything else can be fixed during editing.

The fourth, final, and most important lesson I have taken away from my NaNo experience is the one that will change my writing life forever. I have always claimed that I need a large chunk of uninterrupted time in order to write. NaNo blew that theory to pieces: most days I started at 9am and had written two or three thousand words before 11am. Given that I made a life choice to become a freelancer so I would have more flexibility to write, it’s frustrating to know that I’ve only just learned what that really means. I can apparently write whole novels in a matter of weeks if I only give myself the space and time to do it. This was never more clear to me than on Day 14 when I hit 33,963 words. On that day, I just happened to check the word count of book three (which, as of that day, I had been working on for two weeks shy of one year) and its word count was ONE WORD LESS! So, in fourteen days, I had surpassed my own word count for the previous eleven and a half MONTHS by one word. This is the kind of moment that one might call an epiphany.

Lesson number four: It is possible to write every day. You just have to make it a priority.

Those are my lessons, and what I started as an exercise in “let’s see if I can do this” turned into “Oh my God! I could do this every day for as long as I want to!” And I want to. I have printed out a new calendar page for December and started marking in my word counts each day, putting another big red cross through each day I write, and I will do it until I run out of words, may that be many, many words from now.

YA Workshop at Djerassi

A few months ago I saw a tweet from acclaimed YA author, Nova Ren Suma, announcing that she would be running a YA writing workshop at the Djerassi Resident Artists’ Retreat in California next February. I replied to her tweet asking if something walking the line between YA and NA (New Adult) would be okay, and she responded with interest, and encouraged me to apply. So I did. Only eleven places were available, and I was informed on applying that there were many more applicants than places available. I put thoughts of it aside, and focused on other things until about a week ago, when I got an email telling me I’d been accepted into the program!

So next February I will be trekking all the way from frosty Norway to the ranch, which lies about an hour south of San Francisco, for a week of workshopping my first draft NaNoWriMo novel, and spending peaceful days on a secluded property purpose-built for encouraging the creative juices to flow. Now that I’ve  been informed someone will meet me at the airport and I won’t have to rent a car and drive all the way to Bear Gulch Road alone, I’ve stopped quaking with fear and allowed myself to get excited. Yes, I know, I’m a wuss. Side note: I also hear the on-site chef is amazing!

I have looked at various residency programs around the US, Australia and Europe, and have yearned to apply and win one, but with a three-year-old daughter in my life, it hasn’t so far been a viable option to spend one to three months away from her should I be accepted. But this opportunity was the perfect compromise, offering a week of isolation to work uninterrupted, be inspired by the beautiful location, recharge my creative batteries at the end of another cold, dark Norwegian winter, as well as make the most of the opportunity to workshop with a seasoned YA author and a focused group of other writers.

One day, when my daughter can cope with my absence for longer, I’ll begin applying for the regular-length residencies, but for now, this is the best opportunity I could imagine, and I couldn’t be more excited.

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