Varuna: Editing, Inner Critics and Writing Routines

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The ‘war desk’ 

It’s a week since I returned from Australia and my amazing residency at Varuna. I had expected to blog each week about the experience, but I quickly found my stride and instead, the writing took over. Which, to be fair, was the point – but of course, I had to berate myself a little for being slack and not checking in on my blog. The famous inner critic was in full flow.

I’ve learned over time to accept this element of the creative brain – I think the inner critic is the part that makes us strive to improve, so it’s wholly necessary. The problem is, the inner critic is unreliable and you have to learn when to tune in. In this particular instance, I let it ramble on in the background about blogs (blah blah), taking no notice whatsoever of its words. I needed its guidance for my work only.

Last time I checked in, I was waiting for my structural edits and wondering where the rest of the residency would take me. Well, I received my edits and so the other three weeks of my time at Varuna consisted of writing for ten hours a day at my desk, and walking for between two and four hours in the Blue Mountains National Park. It was, after all, a mere ten minutes away and absolutely stunning. And ten hours is a long time to be sat with your characters and inner critic, trying to puzzle out the problems you’ve created.

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As for the nights, it’s winter in Australia, and the darkness draws in at 5pm. So the evenings were spent reading and chatting with fellow writers, or doing a bit extra editing. But mainly reading as chatting, as I’m not great at night if I’ve been working all day and it usually has a negative impact on the following day if I push too far. But as a result, I edited my entire 80K word manuscript, except for the last three chapters; these I kept for my return as I needed to look at them with fresh eyes.

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Some time out with the lovely readers of Read3rz Re-Vu book club

Writing is not just about trusting your instincts when it comes to plot, characters, and dialogue etc. It’s also about understanding your process and getting the best from yourself – which means balance and working smart. For instance, I was always a morning person, doing my best work at 6am, but recently, I’ve realised this has changed. Whether its practice, or living in the countryside where natural light and weather affect you more, or age, or the fact that I’ve been outside of an office job for seven years now and am finding my own rhythm, something has changed.

It may seem self indulgent to spend time thinking about this, but what’s the point of doing something you love, and working to your own schedule, if you’re going to make it stressful by turning your working day into a battle of your own creation? So while I was on the other side of the world, I decided to take a look at my process and figure out what’s happening. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I can write at any time, not just morning, but only at night if I haven’t already been working all day
  • Five hours is my preferred amount of time for productive writing (after all, I have to fit work in also)
  • Eight hours writing is my usual limit (unless on deadline), otherwise it impacts negatively the next day
  • My writing hours need to be broken up – I need to do other things in between to maintain focus (gardening, freelance, reading, dog walks, bodhran, chores)
  • I can write as much as I like in a day, but I’m only happy with my achievements if I’ve also spent enough time outdoors
  • If I do shorter bursts of writing, I can listen to music at the same time
  • Socialising is a positive aspect that balances the solitary nature of writing
  • A day off a week is a good thing
  • Sometimes, none of the above works and I need to go with what’s right for that moment

IMG_0980If you looked at your writing routine, what would you find? And can you see where it could be improved (this could be in terms of carving out writing time, or for your sanity and well being)? I guess my main revelation was that my need to exercise and be outdoors is as strong as my need to write. I also need to spend more time with friends. This means looking at my day differently and adopting a new routine. It might not work, but I’m ready to try…

Yesterday, I finally pressed send on my edits. Since returning, I rewrote the final chapters of The Book of Revenge, removed the Epilogue (which may yet return) and reread several times to make sure I was happy. And guess what? It’s still as nerve-wracking as the first book. I don’t think that will ever change.

But now, it’s time to switch off and head to Listowel Writers’ Week where I’m doing a Time Travel event with the wonderful Alan Early, and then a writing workshop based on the five senses. It’s a great festival, so I’m excited! If you’re there, give me a shout on twitter @ERMurray. Otherwise, I’ll see you on the other side, new routine in place.

How about you? Is it time to try a new approach?

Bowerbirds, mountain trails & surprises: Varuna Writers’ Residency

I’m coming to the end of my first week of my residency exchange in Australia (thanks to the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre), so I thought I’d check in.

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Singapore was a good idea. It’s a really safe and lovely city to explore, tranquil and small but with plenty going on. It meant I adjusted to the time zone before arriving in Australia (Singapore is 7 hours ahead of Ireland, The Blue Mountains, 9 hours). There was a Tapestry of Spiritual Music festival on, so I got to see/listen to some amazing world music, distracting myself from jet lag while filling up on creativity before a month of concentrated writing.

Let me describe Varuna…

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A particularly impressive maple

It’s a beautiful house and garden, only ten minutes walk along a track to some amazing marked mountain trails. There’s quiet, focused time every day from 9am until 6pm, and then we gather (up to five writers) each night for a fabulous dinner. The house has an extensive library – each room is themed (I’m have the UK & Ireland shelves) – as well as old guest books of writers who have stayed here, and every room has a biography of Eleanor Dark, the writer who originally owned the house. My room is quirky and comfortable, with a delicious reading chair and a window next to the bed that connects to the workspace. The window overlooks the garden and the autumnal trees, with continuous noise from cockatoos, rosellas, parakeets, and galahs.

Seeing as I’m on the other side of the world, and I love nature, I’m taking time to enjoy and explore the local environment as well as write. Some of my favourite experiences so far include…

A top deck train ride through the mountains

  • Discovering a bowerbird’s bower, complete with collected blue items (three females and one male present)
  • Chatting to an elderly gardener who recommended a book, then later delivered a copy as a gift to the house! (The Tree of Man by Patrick White)
  • Walking mountain trails as morning mists rise or the sun sets
  • A flock of ten black cockatoos flying overhead
  • Following new sounds (birds, lizard, bark peeling)
  • A shy (and rarely seen) lyrebird crossing my path while I was writing in the mountains in the early morning – watching it forage for food
  • Learning about (and meeting) Australian authors (I’m halfway through and loving just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth)
  • Discovering an ‘aboriginal interpretive walk’
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A female bower bird, offering a prized blue gift. 

As for my output, this is the first time I’ve had a month of uninterrupted writing time in about six years. My editors notes on The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 are due any day, and so this week has been all about settling in, finding my stride, and working on multiple small projects – some finishing off, some new – including short stories, creative non-fiction, an interview, blog posts and starting to world build for my next project. It’s been steadily productive. The evening chats, resources and focused time have led me in some unexpected directions and everything feels a little bit calmer, on track and richer.

We all know how up and down writing is as an occupation, and confidence in my writing has taken a bit of a knock. Mainly due to exhaustion (publishing three books in 12 months takes its toll, and the fourth book has been challenging as a result), but also fear (I’m out of contract after this next book), juggling too many things (eye roll!) and some harsh self criticism. And so part of my aim here is to take a step back, take stock and reset. Thankfully, that has begun.

You might think that a writing residency is a holiday, but that’s an inaccurate description. In some ways it is, because I don’t need to shop or cook and I’m not freelancing, but it’s concentrated time to think, plan, create. Let me give some examples of how a retreat can help…

1) As part of my residency, I had a consultation with Carol Major. I gave her some new work (short stories) which felt risky and scary, but it’s been a while since I’ve had chance to work on anything completely new due to contracts and deadlines. Our chat gave me a real boost, asserted that yes, I can still come up with fresh ideas and turn them into something worth reading, while igniting my hunger for more. This is a huge relief.

IMG_04832) I’ve been trying to write about my difficult relationship with my mother, and its proving extremely difficult. Deciding to work outdoors in the sunshine, I stumbled upon an ‘aboriginal interpretive walk’ in regenerated land. The walk had informative plaques and gorgeous scenery, and immersing myself physically and mentally to its past, present and future, was really inspiring. It gave me a different perspective for my essay and fed into the tone, adding a new strand. It’s also sparked a short story idea, yet to be started, that I aim to write during my time here.

That’s the thing with writing; there are always humps and slumps. And I believe there should be – if we’re not challenged, how can we strive for better and improve? As I go into the second week, I’m feeling much more positive than I have done in months. Let’s see what the week brings…